Thursday, May 06, 2004

Rome. A rainy afternoon. We just spent 4 hours exploring the immense Vatican basilica, quite a jump from the ancient ruins of the Roman forum yesterday. The Vatican is a place of history, art and prayer -- so large in scale that the thousands of tourists there seem dwarfed in comparison. We picked up audio guides and wandered freely throughout, although since 1992, a plastic wall guards the Pieta by Michelangelo. No more hammer-wielding assaults! Even with the plastic wall, and standing about 15 feet away, the Pieta is still a marvelous sight for its sheer poignancy and power. Expressive in every line, the austere gray sculpture is compelling. And walking down the giant nave (some 600 feet long) to the altar is also an experience. We stood where Charlemagne was crowned, looked at St. Peter's tomb, and admired the chair of St. Peter made of bronze. Built over many hundreds of years, yet this basilica is full of power and religious authority, and with a kind of cohesiveness, perhaps from the major remodeling begun in the Baroque era. We were surrounded by many different languages. I think tourist season has started in earnest, or perhaps it's just Rome.

Yesterday, we spent most of our time in the Roman Forum, admiring the mammoth ruins there. My favorites were the Arch of Severus under which victorious Romans would parade, bringing booty home from the wars. Some of that booty included prisoners of war, destined to be gladiators or sold as slaves. The Arch of Severus has a moving frieze showing Romans each paired with a prisoner in chains. I don't often think of Rome as a slave-based economy, but it was. The history is fascinating, with tories about gladiator bouts that led to 9,000 dead over 4 days. On the other hand, some gladiators, those who performed well, could earn their freedom and often opened gladiator schools. Enormous sums were won and lost with illegal gambling on the games as well.

We also saw the Temple served by vestal virgins. These women were selected from patrician families between the ages of 6 and 10 and served the temple for 30 years. If the eternal flame went out (a sign of impending doom), they were flogged. If they broke their vow of chastity, they were buried alive as their blood could not be spilled. Was it an honor to serve the temple as a vestal virgin? Probably. The temple remains are beautiful, six elegantly tall Ionic columns on a round base.

But the most moving part of visiting the Forum came quite unexpectedly. We had just finished rereading Shakespeare's tale of Caesar (based on Plutarch's Lives, I tend to forget that Shakespeare drew from history), and then we saw the temple dedicated to Julius Caesar, erected by Augustus in AD 79 to commemorate his death. We stepped inside a little alcove to see the original bricks marking the place where Mark Anthony gave his famous speech, and where Caesar's body was burned, covered by bouquets of cut flowers. Caesar is still remembered here in Rome.

My favorite sight so far is atop the Vittoria, a massive "wedding cake" building, built to rival St. Peter's, with monumental sculptures everywhere. What draws me is atop the two columns, two similar sculptures of a winged woman who holds a laurel wreath and drives a chariot without reins -- four horses appear ready to pull each chariot right into the sky.

News from home is good -- Jane Walker let me know that my office computer is being upgraded, and other family and friends are well. I hope it's not raining where you are, but it's a good afternoon to curl up with a book -- that is, if we all had the time. Be well as spring term winds down. We're here in Rome for another week of touring. Perhaps tomorrow we'll try the Vatican Museum.


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