Friday, January 29, 2010

The city of echoes, the city of illusions, and the city of yearning-Giotto di Bondone

Although we had already seen Vittorio Emanuel II's monument it is here that his body is buried. The Pantheon, the 'best preserved' of Rome's ancient buildings, has survived 20 centuries of war, plunder, pillage and the occasional remodel. It was originally built, and looked very different, as a Roman Temple to 'pan theos'- meaning all the gods- in 20 to 25 CE.

The portico is the only part left of the rectangular building, built by Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, son-in-law of Augustus, first Emperor of Rome, that would look anything like it did back then. Sometime between 118 and 125 CE Haddrian rebuilt the structure that can still, almost two thousand years later, claim to be the largest unreinforced dome in the world.

The giant dome that dominates the interior quite simply takes your breath away. At 43m in around the dome completely dominates the inside of the building, in fact once inside it becomes the building. They say if you could find a soccer ball(that's football for those of you not familiar with Kiwispeak) big enough it would fit exactly in the perfectly round space- for the distance from the floor to the top of the dome is exactly equal to its diameter.

The recesses in the dome, apart from making it lighter on the eye, reduce it's actual weight as does the pumice cement used closer to the middle. The oculus, the hole in the top of the dome, is the main light source for the interior and yes sometimes it rains inside too and slips down the cleverly slanted floor into unobtrusive drains.

Converted into a Christian church in the 17th century and dedicated to the Virgin Mary,the main altar holds a 7th century icon featuring the Madonna and child. The apse above it features a golden mosaic decorated with crosses.

There are, in fact, many examples of the Madonna and child found in other recesses around the churches interior.

Detail from another Baroque Madonna and child probably an 'adoration' where Mary is painted with the baby Jesus in the middle of a group of, in this case, either the shepherds or magi I can't remember which. (It would be cool to have a place to put wee notes on the camera next to each picture sometimes dont you think?)

Another Madonna and child above the tomb of the artist Raphael.

Madonna of the Girdle and St Nicholas of Bari painted in 1686 by an unknown artist.

A sculpture by Il Lorenzone of St Anne and the Blessed Virgin.

After visiting the Pantheon in 2005 a New Zealand writer and expert in timekeeping suggested the building could have a secret identity as a giant ancient sundial of sorts. He had observed, apart from the path it traces around the dome, down the wall and across the floor during the year, that the light that comes through the oculus during the two equinoxes, in March and September, strikes the grille directly above the Pantheon's huge heavy northern doors. The grille allows just a slither to escape and mark a spot on the courtyard in front. Coincidence? Maybe not if you take into account the perfect celestial hemisphere the dome forms inside, an integrated actualisation of the Greeks mathematically conceptualized theory of the cosmos, in a building that bears a remarkable resemblance to the general composition of sundials of the time albeit on a majestic scale. It's name, Pantheon meaning 'all of the gods', adds further weight to the theory that it at least presents a mirror image of the home of the gods especially during the equinox when the sun is on the celestial equator (where Earth's equator would lie if projected into space), the most stable part of the sky and thus the assumed home of the myriad of Greek and Roman gods.

The building certainly does have a special aura about it and the effort it must have taken to not only design and build such a magnificent dome, that despite its immense size seems to lightly hover on its supporting walls, but to have it centuries later, still stand omnipotent in all its silent grandeur really does inspire awe a reaction I would consider apt for a Heaven on Earth.

In the plaza outside the Pantheon is a fountain topped by an ancient Egyptian obelisk erected by Pope Clement XI.

The next stop was Trevi Fountain, probably the most famous fountain in Rome. Most of the pictures you see are like this...

and I guess I just assumed it would be, like many of the other fountains and 'go-to' sites we had seen in both Rome and Venice, in a sprawlling piazza or at the very least an open space but it's not.

Much of the approach to Rome's biggest fountain is like this...

... which pops out at the top left hand corner of this photo.

Oddly familiar in that 'I can't quite place where I've seen you before' kind of way the lavish fountain is a grand 26 meters high and 20 meters wide and has been around since the middle of the 15th century when the tradition of building fountains to mark the end point of an acqueduct was rekindled. The aqueduct it marks, the Acqua Vergine, however, predates the beginning of the Common Era although it was destroyed by invaders in the 6th century. The fountain you see today was finished in 1762 after years of false starts and is now a culmination of many diverted springs rather than the one pure spring that inspired it's legend.

The story goes that a bunch of Roman soldiers were dispatched to find a source of spring water closest to Rome. They were met by a young and beautiful girl who led them to the purest of springs which they christened the 'Acqua Vergine', Virgin water.

Until about 40 years ago visitors would drink the fountain water, some would even collect it for tea.

This is the other side of the fountain...squashed into a tiny space that barely copes with the hordes drawn to the cascading water not the bulging biceps or chiseled abdominals of it's star, Oceanus, but by a story that has compelled everyone from Marylin Monroe to the Olsen twins to do this...

Another well told legend, one that motivated a movie called 'Three coins in the Fountain' (1954), holds that if visitors to the fountain throw a coin (in the movie three women each throw a coin hence the 'three coins'), with your right hand over your left shoulder, into the fountain, they are ensured a return Rome.

Approximately $3500 is thrown into the now heavily chlorinated waters of the Trevi Fountain each day. The coins are collected at night and used to subsidize a supermarket for Rome's poor population.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

I ask no monument, proud and high, to arrest the gaze of passersby.

After retracing our steps back to the station we caught the train to Colosseo station to begin our walk to Rome's three most visited free attractions. The ring road around the Colosseum was closed off to traffic and there was a festive atmosphere brewing. There were street performers everywhere.

The 'I bet I can do this longer than you can' artist. I bet he can too!

The 'We're a long way from home, please buy our CD' artists.

The ever popular 'Boys from the Global Ghetto'.

And this guy who used a few cans of spray paint, some stencils, crushed up newspaper, cardboard and about 15 minutes to create these... right in front of an appreciative and growing audience.

Not far from the Colosseum is Rome's enormous tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The monument is actually the Monumento Nazionale a Vittorio Emanuele II, the National Monument of Victor Emmanuel II, the first King of unified Italy. Designed by Giuseppe Sacconi in 1895 it wasn't finished until 1935 which isn't surprising considering its size and grandeur. It's a staggering 135m wide and 70 m high not including the bronzed winged victories.

If you walk up the steps at the front you can see that it is also Rome's Tomb of the Unknown Soldier a practice used throughout the world to memorialise unidentified soldiers who have died in modern wars.

Experts believe the tradition was begun with a simple ceremony during the Peloponnesian Wars in Ancient Greece where an empty stretcher was carried in recognition of the fallen. A silent tribute was introduced on Armistice Day, at 11am on the 11th day of the 11th month 1918 as part of a commemorative ceremony at Whitehall. King George V had requested that all Britons suspend what they were doing for 2 minutes as a mark of respect for those that had died during WWI.

The first actual burial of an unknown soldier representing all those whose remains were buried unidentified was thought to have taken place at Westminster Abbey a year later when the actual remains of a returned soldier from the battlefields on the Western Front were interred with full military honours in what is known as the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior. This was followed closely by a similar ceremony in France at the Arc de Triomphe in 1920 and most other Allied Nations in the following years. Advances in DNA identification over the years has meant that many of the unknown have been given back their identities which for some has meant a request by the families to rebury their relative in family graves, leaving some of the world's Unknown Soldier tombs empty.

Up until 2004 New Zealand had War Memorials to remember our dead.

This part of a commemorative wall, on the top floor of the Auckland Museum, has two of my mother's uncles names on it. One was killed in front of her father- his brother- by 'friendly fire' something that affected my Grandad so badly after the war, he only ever spoke of it once to my father, years later.

Of the 250 000 New Zealanders who have served in armed forces 30 000 died overseas, 9000 of those remains have either never been found or they have no known grave. On the 11th November 2004 a World War I Digger, a Kiwi, was returned home for burial in the new Tomb of the Unknown Warrior at the National War Memorial, Wellington. The ceremonial programme was probably the largest commemorative programme ever undertaken in New Zealand.

He is one of 30,000 who died in service. One of over 9000 who have no known grave or whose remains could never be recovered. His remains were chosen by the Commission from the First World War Caterpillar Valley Cemetery in the Somme, France, an area where the greatest number of the various New Zealand regiments and battalions are known to have fought. The soldier, whose name, rank, regiment, race, religion and other details are unknown, represents and honours all New Zealanders who became lost to their families in war.

The body of the unknown soldier in Rome's memorial was chosen from 11 unknown remains on October 26, 1921 by Maria Bergamas, whose only child was killed during World War I. His body was never recovered. The selected soldier was moved from Aquileia, where the ceremony with Bergamas had taken place, to Rome and buried in a state funeral on November 4, 1921

The full quote I used for the title of this post reads:
'I ask no monument, proud and high, to arrest the gaze of passersby. All that my yearning spirit craves, is bury me not in a land of slaves.'Attributed to Frances Ellen Watkins Harper; Pacifist; Abolitionist; Feminist; Poet (1825-1911)

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Of Saints, Popes and martyrs

We had planned the next day to go to the Catacombs of the Appian Way which were a tram, then Metro, then bus ride away so it was a relatively early start to get there before the two hour lunch shut down at noon. Now practised, confident and carrying our trusty Roma Passes we made it to Termini, the central train station and the beginning of many of our Roman journeys. Through the turnstile and onto the train was easy too. Even catching the 218 bus from San Giovanni Metro stop was a cinch- it was waiting right across the road. Trying to work out the correct stop? Not so easy. We guessed and pulled the buzzer probably a couple of stops too early and ended up trotting at a fair clip to get to the ticket booth before the cut off time. Up the little country lane, into the well marked driveway and through some beautiful serene rural scenery not even an hour out of central Rome.

The Via Appia Antica was the first of Rome's great roads stretching all the way from here, Saint Sebastians Gate... Brindisi in the south -where we would be heading in a day or two's time.

Since it was illegal to bury their dead inside the city walls it makes sense that Roman tombs were located, here, just outside the city limits, where they could be still be visited and cared for easily. Pagan Romans tended to be cremated but for Christians, who believed in resurrection, this wasn't an option, so they needed land. A few wealthy Christians allowed their land to be used as burial places as most Christians were too poor to be landowners. To make the most of the donated land they dug tunnels, an estimated 375 miles of tomb lined tunnels, as deep as five layers, in the volcanic tuff. Tuff is soft enough to cut relatively easily but durable and not prone to collapse, perfect for the 60 or so known catacombs outside Rome. At a time when Christians, in particular, were persecuted, the Catacombs became a relatively safe place to bury the dead.

There are three sites tourists can visit today each with different opening times and days. We had chosen the Catacombe de San Callisto because it was open when we wnated to go and the closest option.

The five euro ticket gets you a guided tour by an expert and if you are lucky an enthusiast but 'no photos allowed'. The morning was sunny and the 20 or so minute wait for the start of the English tour was warm and pleasant and there was plenty of people watching to do.

See the dog collars? Incidently my mum used to make dads clerical collars out of washed Janola bottles long before recycling was trendy.

The Callixtian Complex is a large area of nearly 90 acres of land, homes, school buildings, dormatories and the Catacombs, which cover about half the area, underfoot. People have been coming to this area to bury, tend to or pay homage to their dead since about 5 CE (or maybe in this case it is appropriate to use the term AD). The Christianisation of Rome, in 313 AD, led to a cult of pilgrimage. As there would be no more recently persecuted martyrs to connect and to inspire they needed to be regularly reminded. The Pope of the time, St. Zephyrinus, entrusted the administration of these particular Catacombs to Callixtus, a decon. He had to provide a tomb for every Christian, the poor and slaves, so that each would have a worthy burial. On Zephyrinus' death, Callixtus was elected pope. He enlarged the Catacombs, which became the official cemetery of the Church of Rome.

The most ancient parts of the Catacombs of St.Callixtus include the 'Crypts of Lucina', the 'Area of the Popes' and the 'Tomb of St. Cecilia'. It is thought that maybe even the bodies of Saints Peter and Paul may have been bought here for safe keeping during the 3rd century.

Our guide was an energetic nun dressed in modern civies, her only tell a simple cross around her neck and a cross pin on her collar. She led us down a box lined garden path and into a chapel where we sat on low wooden benches. Using a set of large painted panels that slid in and out of a frame she gave quite an entertaining historical summary and background to the symbols we could already see in the marble pieces mounted in the chapel walls- which she pointed out were the real deal. In fact everything that we were about to see in the underground chambers and corridors is as it was, except for the lack of bodies which is largely due to looting by relic mongers rather than more sinister reasons. I had sat next to B in an effort to relay as many of the main points as possible which was taking significant concentration as her thick Italian accented English kept getting swallowed by the dense walls but I think we did okay. I was glad I had read up beforehand.

The Catacombs of St. Callixtus are the most important and imposing of the catacombs of Rome. They are considered by Christians, historians and anthropologists alike as 'the cradle of Christianity', 'the Archives of the primitive Church' because of the way they illustrate the usage and customs of the early Christians, their religious beliefs, the way they were expressed and the history of martyrdom. They provide an intriguing way of studying early Christian symbols too. Their secret language.

The Good Shepherd, carrying a sheep, represents Jesus waiting to guide his followers to heaven, the sheep is the saved soul. The fish, representing both Jesus and his disciples, taken from the biblical reference 'I will make you fishers of men' in the book of Matthew and because the first letters of Jesus Christ, Son of God and Saviour spelled 'fish' in Greek. The dove, representing the soul, can be seen quenching its thirst (worshipping), with an olive branch (resting ), or happily perched (arrived in paradise). Peacocks embodied immortality. The anchor, used to disguise a cross, was already a symbol of hope so it seemed appropriate. A simple banana shaped boat with a hoisted sail, a symbol of safe passage in a turbulent world, could also hide a cross. The capital letter M signified the tomb of a martyr and the 'chi-rho' symbol, the first two letters of Christ in Greek XP making a kind of star.

The entrance steps lead straight to the second level past more pieces of engraved sealing stones, epitaphs and a statue of the Good Shepherd on the landing. The enscriptions on the epitaphal stones give a 'birth day' rather than a death date as the belief was they would be reborn 'into the light', 'Cuius dies inluxit'. In fact I think I remember our guide saying that the word 'Catacomb' means bed, as they like to think of their loved ones just falling asleep and waking in heaven rather than dying. There is even pilgrim grafitti scratched on the wall.

The tunnels are more than tall enough to walk comfortably through and wide enough to pass. There are hollows in the walls sized to fit the occupier, usually poor and unable to afford a room, the most poignant are child or even baby sized.

The first stop, the Crypt of the Popes which although now empty, once held 9 Popes and 8 Bishops of the 3rd century. Original inscriptions, broken and now incomplete, are still on the wall indicate their names and titles in Greek and symbols. There is also a large plaque with parts of a poem by Damasus. Further down the cool packed dirt corridor is the Crypt of Saint Cecilia, another notable martyr, the patron saint of muscians and church music, who died a terrible long drawn out death after her brother and husband were killed by Turcius Almachius. They apparently tried to kill her by smothering her with steam and when that didn't work somehow tried and failed to cut her head off- how thats even possible I don't know! She was holding out to receive the Last Rights. Her body was later found, where she finally succombed, three fingers outstretched on one hand and one on the other, signifying her eternal belief in the Holy Trinity. In her tomb now lies a white marble statue in the position she was discovered complete with sword cuts to the neck!

The rest of the tour took us through rooms which once held families in a similar way to how a cemetery plot can be reserved for generations now. There are regular shaped holes like the drawers have been pulled out and left and sometimes still artifacts such as pots and utensils. There was often a table in the room and space enough for the remaining family members to hold services and ritual feasts. Some of the rooms still have parts of frescos and mosaics depicting Baptism, the Eucharist and other biblical scenes and stories.

What we saw was but a small part of the huge underground burial chamber. Walking through the chambers among the tombs of so many faithful in the footsteps that so many have walked before really does leave an impression on you. It took incredible effort and sacrifice against sometimes, it must have seemed, insurmountable odds, especially during the persecution, to hold on so tight to their faith to a God they couldn't see and it must have seemed, at times, had completely forsaken them. Our guide led us into one of the last family tombs and asked permission to say a simple prayer which, considering the company we were in, seemed appropriate, and then we climbed the steps back out into the sunlight.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

As the swarming hollow of a hive, the whole Basillica- Alive!- Browning

Following the steady line of people, like a trail of bread crumbs leading to the altar after Sunday mass, we skirted the wall that surrounds the Vatican grounds, through some lofty arches and into Saint Peter's Square. I'm not sure why, because it happens every time, but I was surprised at how affected I felt. I'm not a particularly religious person in the sense that I don't believe in any one thing or follow any one organised religion and although I am certainly not Catholic, I am the daughter of a liberal theologian and Presbyterian minister who has been a teacher of World Religion at tertiary institutions since I was born. Religious performance, ritual and practice, in it's many forms and guises is, to me, an expression of culture, of people and of being. It's human nature, a primal instinct. People have been doing it for as long as we have existed, in fact the further back you go the more superstitious we become. Saint Peter's Square and the Basillica represent the symbolic mother lode of, at the very least, the Catholic church if not Christendom as a whole. The mighty and majestic basillica is the largest church building in the world able to hold 60 000 people within her belly. As what must surely amount to a magnanimous act of piety and devotion as great as the ancient Egyptian temples or the temples of Angkor Wat, Saint Peter's was built entirely by hand.

The square that lies before the basillica was designed, by Bernini, to give the greatest number of people a decent view of the Pope as he gives his blessing, from either the middle of the façade of the church or from a window in the Vatican Palaceby. Bernini, a deeply religious man, had to contend with an already placed obelisk, a large fountain off to one side and an irregularly shaped open area. He solved the balance problem by placing a matching fountain on the opposite side of the Egyptian obelisk and by dividing the entire area in two. The space immediately in front of the church is trapezoidal, narrowing as it moves out into the square making the facade of the church seem even bigger than it already is. The main area of the piazza is a huge ellipsis around the 360 ton obelisk at the centre. It slopes slightly downwards towards the monument. The whole area is boardered by a simple double pillared colonade, wide enough to accommodate a horse and carriage, that alledgedly cost more than a million dollars. That's a huge amount in the mid 1500s. It stretches around the piazza, save a bit opposite the church that gives a view all the way down the road to the River Tiber, symbolically gathering worshippers into it's fold.

Standing motionless on top of the colonades and church facade are 140 figures of saints keeping a watchful eye on the millions of people from all over the world who come into the busy square every year. The figures weren't made by one artist but by many over a period of 41 years. And in front of the church raised on a plinth stands Saint Peter himself.

Beside the Obelisk was a huge traditionally lit christmas tree and a platform with a presepi, a nativity scene. The tradition of the nativity scene is an Italian one. St Francis of Assisi is credited with staging the first one in a cave in Greccio using live subjects in 1223. A hundred years later nearly every church in Italy had it's own although they were already beginning to substitute static scenes. Living scenes are still popular in some parts of Italy including in Assisi, where it all began. I had read that, in Italy, the baby Jesus was left out of the crib until Christmas morning but all the ones we saw in Venice, before Christmas, had an occupied manger. The Jesus used seems to be the same, traditional but not very probable, ceramic bub. A blonde, blue eyed, curly haired, naked cherub lying on a white blanket, a little grey 'nappy' preserving his modesty, a kind of condoling look on his face and wee arms in the palm up, out stretched 'let us pray' (or maybe just 'pick me up?') pose. His parents, however, although they still have soft oval symetrical faces, at least have the dark hair and brown eyes that are more historically and culturally accurate.

To get into the basillica we joined the 5 or 6 queues of people being fed through the 4 security machines in a pretty much constantly moving stream. Once cleared we walked past the door guarded by Alice in Wonderland extras- or Swiss guards depending on who you ask- that leads to the Perfecture of the Papal Household, where you can get a free ticket for a private audience with Pope Benedict although you have to do it at least a week ahead of time, and up the steps and through the doors into the long portico.

Built on what was once a pagan cemetery, the remains of which can still be found beneath the impressive building, the basillica rises from the exact spot where the then Apostle Peter was crucified, in 67CE, in a spectacle that included battles between slaves, gladiators and beasts in what was known, appropriately by the sounds of it, as 'Nero's Circus'. Peter's body lies under the Altar of Confession (in the middle of the picture)...

...which was hewn from a single block of marble and like most early Christian altars faces east directly under Michelangelo's, dome.

The canopy, a baldacchino, is again Bernini. In his typically ephemeral style the bronze supporting columns are heavily detailed with olive and bay leaf branches, bees, Saint Peter's keys and scrolls, angels and floral festoons and then crowned with a drapping effect like wind blown cloth.

The Main Tribune, or apse, which holds the Cathedra Petri, St Peter's Throne, is also a Bernini.

Above, on the golden background of the frieze, is the Latin inscription:
'O Pastor Ecclesiae, tu omnes Christi pascis agnos et oves' -O pastor of the Church, you feed all Christ's lambs and sheep.
On the right is the same in Greek.
The ornate chair, it is said, is the same one in which Saint Peter sat to teach. The dove just visable in the centre of the golden halo represents the Holy Spirit which like the chair has survived revolutions and persecutions and so symbolizes the perpetual continuity of the Christian doctrine and its promise of infallibility. It is certainly not subtle, the shining crown visible from the moment you walk into the nave of the church.

Other notable works in the churches many little chapel niches include Michelangelo's Pieta.

He carved this depicition of the Virgin Mary holding her dying son, when he was only 24. It is the only piece he ever signed and he is said to have regreted his 'act of arrogance' for the rest of his life. 'Pieta' means pity in Italian which, I think, doesn't acknowledge the strength in Mary's face. The overall picture is one of sorrow, a mother's personal sorrow, as she cradles her grown son like a helpless baby, but Mary's expression is one of acceptance rather than despair.

The Altar of Our Lady Succor is the only icon (because it is painted on wood) in the basillica. It is embellished with 'the rarest' alabaster and decorated with precious stones. Underneath lie the remains of Saint Gregory of Nazianzus.

Over one of the doors near the back of the church is this little beauty, the Monument to Alexander VII- the Pope who commissioned the colonaded courtyard. Crafted by Bernini ,who was nearly 80 at the time, at first glance it looks like many of the other white marble statue compositions but look closer...can you see the skeleton with his feet hanging over the door? The Pontiff, who is out of the picture on the top of the work is kneeling and absorbed in prayer, not at all disturbed by the sudden appearance of Death, the skelton, who is brandishing an hour-glass to indicate that time has passed. The four statues around the base represent the virtues practiced by the Pontiff: Charity, with a child in her arms, Truth, with a foot on a map of the world, Prudence and Justice.

This ancient bronze of Saint Peter has had it's toes worn to indistinction by the hands of centuries of pilgrims.

It was getting late and entry to the cupola, the dome on the roof of the basillica, closes earlier in winter so we followed the signs to the end of the thick queue. This was to be the first and one of the only slow moving lines we experienced during our whole time in Italy and it moved so painfully slow we really didn't think we would be let in. One tiny little window was serving both those who wanted a ticket to the lift and those who were going to do the pilgrimage up the 400+ stairs to the top. If you buy an only slightly more expensive lift ticket you still have to climb about half the stairs so we thought we may as well do the whole pilgrimage. The sign at the bottom cautioned those who were claustrophobic and those with lung or heart problems so I was expecting much worse than the wide half steps to the first level where we walked across the flat roof between uplit domes just above the front of the church.

The second set of steps left the climber with a bit less room width wise but there was still room to pass and to turn around.

They take you to a very special spot though- the inside of the dome- where there is a skinny completely caged walkway around the inside edge.

The view down into the church nave is breathtaking and being so close to age old mosaics memorable...

...but it is where you go next that will really blow your mind.

The staircase corridor is just wide enough for one, no going back, no stopping and absolutely no passing (the exit is a separate but almost identical staircase)and it seemed to get even more narrow as we climbed. To make things even more adventurous (or comical depending on how you look at it)they seem to lean outwards which is just as well when they disappear into nothing more than a metal spiral with room for no hand rail on either side suitable only for anorexics with a death wish. There is, however, no going back- remember I said you can't turn around- a wall on one side with which to hug with both hands and a thick rope dangling down the middle should you need extra reassurance.

The view from the lantern at the very, very top is, quite frankly, utterly worth the effort and the heart palpitations.

Now there's a couple of people you don't see that often on this blog!

Little did we realise that climbing steep and precarious staircases to the top of some of Italy's monuments was going to be remembered as a main characteristic of this holiday.