Roman Holiday (Part Two)

Friday, 7 Mar: Romeward Bound (which I really should’ve used for the title of the last entry, but oh well)

Friday dawns grey and…wet. Again. Some more. Always. Great. But we have Big Plans, and I for one certainly don’t plan on letting a little rain stop me – I mean, I usually live eight months out of the year in Syracuse, New York, which is the Unfortunate Weather Capital of the World, so what’s the big? After a croissant and cappuccino from the café down the road (here’s a hint: when traveling, find a hostel that gives you breakfast vouchers) (and here’s another one: Italy makes great cappuccino), we set out to buy a three-day pass for the Metro and head for the Pantheon.

Public transportation in Rome serves as an interesting comparison to other cities’, especially after living in London for two months. The subway system has two lines (London has at least a million) that create a giant X under the city, at the center of which is Termini station. The problem with this? The X, while it’s an attractive enough shape, leaves huge swaths of the city out of convenient reach of the Metro. The Tube in London may seem a mess of lines and stations and buskers, but by golly it gets you where you need to go. I’m sure the buses in Rome supplement the service provided by the Metro, but it’s just…interesting, to see a completely different approach to mass transit. The Metro stations tend to be dimmer and generally sketchier than in London, the trains more…I don’t know, sketchy. It gets the job done, I suppose, but it certainly makes me appreciate (and I’m almost homesick for, in an odd way) the London Underground.

Whoo, tangent. Anyway: the layout of the Metro means we have to get off at some stop that’s really nowhere near the Pantheon. I like a walk as much as the next person, though, and even though it’s cold and wet, we splash our way merrily through the streets of Rome. No, it’s fine. My fingers are supposed to be purple like this. No, really.

We reach the Pantheon without much incident and, standing in the Piazza del Rotondo and staring at the façade (M AGRIPPA L F COS FECIT blah blah Roman blah), I have another “…This can’t be real” moment. Because it’s THE PANTHEON! My third favorite building in the world, right after the Hagia Sophia and Notre Dame in Paris (neither of which I’ve seen, go figure)! And it’s sitting right there, all innocent, like “Hi, don’t mind me, I’m just the best-preserved Roman building ever, and also incredibly beautiful. Man, how ‘bout this weather?” It’s…the Pantheon. I’m so happy.

And then? And then we go inside.

The Pantheon is an incredible building on so many levels. The preservation, of course, is perhaps its most immediately noticeable aspect, but the design itself is a masterpiece of Roman aesthetics and engineering. The materials are handled so beautifully, the ornament is so appropriate, the proportions are so, so perfect. The square-and-circle symbolism (roughly translated, it’s about the geometry of the man-made world within the circular divine) is everywhere, subtle And it’s just incredible, the sheer size of it – in its day, it was the largest continuous interior space in the world – and the dizzying weightlessness of the dome. But even more wonderful than the architecture is the way the light, grey and soft, falls through the oculus in the ceiling; when I sit on a bench at the perimeter and look up for long enough, I can see the rain – more like mist – drifting down into the space. It is silent and cold in the Pantheon, and it hits me all of a sudden: I am in the Pantheon. The tears start and keep going for a good while (apparently, Europe makes me cry a lot), and my travelmates have the decency to not make fun of me. As we’re leaving, I make a point of hugging the Pantheon (around one of the columns in the portico) while Kathleen rolls her eyes and takes a picture.

We take a quick look at the Piazza Navona and grab some food (note to self: prosciutto and mozzarella sandwiches are SO GOOD), then head to the Palatine Hill to redeem the second half of the tour for which we so sketchily paid at the Colosseum the previous day. Climbing the hill, under the Cloaca Maxima and up a rather pleasant park-like path, we’re treated to a rather uninspired introduction to the Domus Augustiana by Tour Guide Josh, who sounds mostly like he’s from Minnesota but occasionally throws out a word with a completely British inflection. The ruins of the palace are…actually pretty damn cool, especially when you think about the important people who lived and partied there (the Romans rolled deep – we know this to be true), and when you see how intact some of the structure still is. Plus, the place is just big. Once Josh has given us a brief walkthrough, we’re let loose; before we head to the Forum, we skirt around the incongruous former-Fascist-headquarters (plopped in the middle of the Palatine – how tactless) to check out the view of the Circus Maximus. The vistas available from the Palatine Hill are pretty awesome, and we stand there for a while, just looking. It’s cold and wet, though, and we agree soon to move on. Before leaving, I stoop to pick up a small amber rock with a white stripe across it: my own little piece of the Palatine.

As we descend towards the Forum, I start forgetting about my wet pants legs and soaked shoes and start to get really, really excited again. The Forum, of course, was the operational center of the known (Western) world for about a thousand years, full of the finest examples of Roman public architecture. Having taken Latin for four years, I have at various points in my life had the entire layout of the Forum memorized—the Curia (that’d be the Senate building) here, the Basilica Nova there, the Temples of this and that and the other thing. I’ve been out of touch with that area of my knowledge since I started college, but as we walk among the ruins of the Forum, playing umbrella bumper-cars with the other tourists, it all starts coming back. It’s incredible, really—I’ll venture a guess aloud, all “I…think this is the Temple of Castor and Pollux, don’t quote me on that, though,” and five seconds later I’ll spot the placard confirming it. As we make our way north (-ish) along what used to be the Via Sacra, I can almost feel those disused neurons firing up again: “Dude, this was the Temple of the Vestals!” or “Why, hello, Temple of Saturn. What’s up?” The Rostrum is particularly chilling—it’s pretty powerful to see the place from which every important public speech in Rome was delivered. And, of course, I can’t resist rambling off what I can remember of Cicero’s Ad Catilinam speech I’d memorized, way back in the day for the Latin Oratory competition at the National Junior Classical League convention. (Nerd? Yes. Get over it.) “Est enim nobis is animus, Quirites, ut non modo nullius audaciae cedamus, sed etiam omnes improbos…” “Shut up, Colin.” “…Fine.” Despite my best efforts, though, I can’t quite recall what the administrative complex at the top of the Forum was called, and it frustrates me to no end, because I can remember almost verbatim what Mrs. Collins told us about it in Latin II.

(It’s called the Tabularium, for the record. Thanks, Wikipedia!)

The cold and wet prevail once again, and we head back to our hostel for a quick rest. Before long, though, we make the heroic effort to go see the Church of the Capuchins, the crypt of which has the unique bragging point of being decorated entirely with human bones. And mummified monks. You know how it is – when your monastic order has to pick up and move, and you have to do something with all of the remains of brothers buried over the years. The obvious solution, I suppose, is to create architectural decorations out of femurs piled like firewood, or medallions made from scapulae, or complex floral designs from ribs and coccyges (which, I just found out, is the plural of “coccyx”). It’s a little spooky, of course, but even more than that, it’s incredibly beautiful. An anatomy refresher and lesson in mortality rolled into one – well done, Capuchins. By the time we’re finished looking through the quite-small crypt, I realize I have an unseemly craving for meat – cannibalism humor aside, it’s been a long day and we need food. We end up at a nearby restaurant that’s a little fancier than most of the places we’ve frequented thus far, and so we decide to give in to the course-based menu. Some pasta and a nice steak later, I’m finally satisfied. Our small troop heads home for the night, by way of a shop to buy wine, because our hostel has a roof terrace and it seems like a particularly Italian thing to do, sit on the roof terrace (who are we?) and share a bottle of wine.

It’s cold up on the roof, of course, but the sky is finally clear and we brought blankets from our room. The four of us huddle together on a decidedly rickety plastic bench, and for a long, long moment, we’re just silent—the stars, the view of the Colosseum, the rest of Rome sitting quietly around us all seem almost overwhelmingly significant. Our conversation wanders from astrophysics to bad puns to The Future in that particularly wonderful way it does when you’re with a group of people who really click, in a weaving, organic stream of consciousness that has its own rules about making sense. This is the sort of thing I wish I could do every night, sit on a rooftop in Rome and taaalk and talk and talk; but we’ve had a long day today and have planned a long day tomorrow (how else is there to do it?). It’s with a sort of peaceful regret that I negotiate the treacherous staircase back into the building and down to bed, once we’ve all had our fill of the vast night.

8 Responses to “Roman Holiday (Part Two)”

  1. 1 kat March 24, 2008 at 9:38 pm

    i found your blog from holly at nothingbutbonfires. i loved reading this! i studied in rome when i was in college – i miss it so much and when i get together with friends who also studied there, we talk about it as if we were just there yesterday. and you’re very right, the underground transit is very simple compared to any other european city. A or B!

    i’m just glad it never rained when i was there…i’m not sure i could stand for purple hands.

  2. 2 Colin March 24, 2008 at 10:13 pm

    Rome was amaaazing (but I’m sure you’ve already gathered from this entry what I think of it), even if the Metro was a little trying at times. The wet and cold were, um, interesting, but we felt like champions for seeing everything in spite of them.

    Studying abroad’s such a trip, isn’t it? (Hee, pun not entirely intended.) I have a feeling that the people I’m with – here in London – and I are going to have plenty to talk about for a very long time.

  3. 3 Hannah March 25, 2008 at 12:02 am

    More excitement! (I’ve got your blog on RSS feed now, so I can totally stalk you with minimal effort.) The Roman underground sounds mildly absurd – but then, when have the Italians been ones for effectiveness? The buslines, while a little scary (keep your bum to the wall, ladies), at least cover the city pretty well.

    Oh, the Pantheon. So majestic, but so serene. I didn’t know it was your third favorite. My list of favorite buildings goes:
    1. St. Peter’s Basilica
    2. King’s College Chapel (Cambridge)
    3. This spot changes. Sometimes it’s the Duomo at Florence; sometimes it’s the Boston Public Library; and sometimes it’s the Hacienda.

    I miss prosciutto. There are some cases when veggie-meat just doesn’t cut it.

    The fact that you railed against Catiline in public has planted a little bulb of glee in my heart.

    I hadn’t even heard of the Church of the Capuchins – a search on Google images makes me think I may need to pay a visit next time I’m in Rome. We just started studying ‘Hamlet’ in my Shakespeare class (!!!), and Frank Brownlow gave me his glowy-face for saying “memento mori” today during our discussion of the graveyard scene.

    More, please.


  4. 4 Colin March 27, 2008 at 9:49 am

    RSS is a beautiful thing. I’m so proud of you and your stalking skillz.

    So I’ve been to three out of your possible five favorite buildings! Not half bad. Well, I didn’t actually have the chance to go inside King’s College Chapel, which I’m now really bummed about, but I saw it, at least, and it’s beautiful. One of the top three examples of perpendicular architecture in the country, or so I’ve heard. And “serene” is really the perfect adjective for the Pantheon, which may actually tie the Hagia Sophia for second – I’ll let you know after Istanbul.

    I think I have a crush on prosciutto. Don’t worry – I’ll eat enough for the two of us from now on. You know, because I’m just so generous. Sound good?

    And I am not at all surprised that you’ve received Frank Brownlow’s glowy face. I expect you’ll be seeing a lot more of it, too, because Hannah + Shakespeare = a lot of beautiful, beautiful literature babies. Or something. Hee.

  5. 5 pianola March 29, 2008 at 3:33 am

    Colin Fanning, am I to understand that you spent an entire spring break in Rome and did not set foot in Saint Peter’s Basilica. For shame!

    Literature babies? What would be the appearance of a woman carrying a book in her womb?


  6. 6 pianola March 29, 2008 at 3:34 am

    That’s me, by the way. I got an account. Technically. Really I just wanted to have an icon for my comments.


  7. 7 Colin March 30, 2008 at 9:45 pm

    I like your icon! I think I need to change mine. ‘Cuz it’s kind of boring. Any suggestions?

  8. 8 pianola March 30, 2008 at 10:35 pm

    Oh, yours isn’t so bad! It reminds me of a wax seal. And we all know how much I like wax seals.

    However, if you’re in the market for a new icon, LiveJournal at least is rife with icon journals. As I lack any Photoshop skillz, I usually just resort to cropping images of paintings or book covers (as with this icon, from the Modern Penguin Classics of ‘Maurice’. This practice is probably not wholly legal, but I patronize Penguin frequently enough that I hope they will be forgiving should they ever discover my use of their book covers).

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