We had made an elaborate strategy for conquering Rome. We would undertake three assaults by train, which we would catch at Bracciano at 7 o’clock in the morning to avoid the first rush of people. On the first day we would start at Caracalla and move slowly towards the Campidoglio. The next day, that is after a well deserved day of rest at the campsite, messing around in the lake, we would take the Vatican and on the third day we would do palaces, churches, streets and squares. That is what we did. The train was cold but chatty, the windows had been clogged up with graffiti saying things like “I hate women” and “I hate summer”. The first seemed personal and tragic, or merely male, but the second had my sympathy, the temperature was rising steadily well into the thirties. Getting out at the appropriate station we walked towards the Baths of Caracalla and were the first to arrive. In fact we were early and had to wait, which was good because it gave us a good view of the long front of the building. When it opened we walked around in the silent spaces. It even managed to impress Joshua for the sheer quantity of brick overlaid with stories. The brick had started behaving like geological strata, creating sharp fingers of rock and leaving canyons weathered by rain and use. We studied the way the marble had been fixed to the brick substructure and admired the floors, but more than anything we fitted our tiny little bodies into the emptiness and wondered.
It was delightful and getting warm. We decided to amble to the coliseum, arriving by passing through the triumphal arch of Constantine. Rosie thought it was strange that such history was so haphazardly mixed with the traffic. Somehow these things seem incongruous and irreverent. We walked around the coliseum which in the meantime had filled up with thousands of pilgrims of history and iconicity, masses of them, long rows. A polite young English man moved in on us as likely targets for a tour promising us we would be able to jump the growing queue, so we did, against my better judgment, which turned out to be not much better. It was expensive but worth the trouble. The guide was knowledgeable and we had earplugs and a little black box through which he sung the stories of the place with a pleasant lightness, of its statistics, its contraptions and its drama. The geology of the place has to be seen to be properly experienced. It simply does not have the same value in pictures: the endless brick, immensurate quantities of it, spilling, like lava, from the upper slopes and reaching down like ordered streams into to the central labyrinth. Each brick, manufactured individually and handled individually by several men and put in place to become part of a vast imperial machine of human cruelty, lust, hunger for fame, political control and religiosity. On the gallery you are given a wonderful view of Constantine’s arch and the rubble fields of the forae. I particularly enjoyed the way that the arches had, after the fall of Rome, been commandeered for housing; how beams had been lodged into the main structure to hold extra mezzanine floors leaving the Coliseum as we see it, pockmarked by the termitic industriousness.
We had lunch and would return at 14.00 for the remainder of the tour. It would take us around the Forum Romanum which presents a bewildering plethora of remnants often difficult to differentiate into separate objects. My favourite would have to be the temple of Antonius and Faustinus with its ancient colonnade fronting the baroque church façade. I don’t know why, the church façade is certainly not the best Rome has to offer, in fact it is rather indifferent, and the temple front is also hardly ambitious, but the happy-go-lucky the way are condemned to each other and their awkward fit presents us with the pleasant surprise of an unlikely marriage that is happy. The basilica of Maxentius was surreal. It was hot, all the others were tired, I was alone away from the liquid crowd of determined parents and silenced children. The wind became audible and the large niches of the aisles acted like shells, behind which Mussolini’s motorway roared. Here and there lay large fragments of worked stone busy merging with the entropic whole. The arches of Titus and Septimus Severus worn rich and tottering, showing Titus on the back of his eagle; the guide shouting his stories (we no longer had little black boxes with earplugs) explained the letters S.P.Q.R and had everyone hanging from his lips. Behind Septimus Severus we ascended the staircase to the Campidoglio walking past the vast rear wall of the Palazzo dei Senatori. It had become too late for the museum and we were quietly thankful for that, although I had so wanted to show Joshua and Rosie Constantine’s foot, hand and the dying Gaul. Instead we sat on the shady steps of the third palazzo, of which I can never remember the name, and dissected the perspectival and processional plan with its oval centre, the placing and orientation of the palaces and paid our respects to Marcus Aurelius. Two weeks later when we arrived home, the film the gladiator was showing on telly which was a wonderful coincidence.
The next day we spent messing around with water to prepare ourselves for the assault on the Vatican. We arrived early enough by train and metro, but the queue in front of the entrance to the museum was already impressive, mass tourism requires extraordinary logistical savvy. Victoria and Rosie went off to find something that they needed in a chemist and Josh and I waited outside the bastioned walls of the Vatican for the queue to move. Actually it went pretty quickly and we were in while the museum was still relatively empty. We went straight to the Sistine chapel in order to beat as much of the converging masses as possible and were duly rewarded. We were able to sit for ages, cranking our neck wondering things and telling stories. I was near to tears and they occasionally brimmed over. I think Victoria felt the same. The whole thing reduces you to silence; not the stories of Michelangelo’s determination and perseverance; not the technical details about its composition and all that, just the thing as it appears in its majesty. All the other stuff can take second place and hover about in the background. The whole chapel, surfaces with stories, man created by pointing him out , a story of flesh and aura, the work and effort of the last judgment, a story of specific gestures, the fear and remorse of those bound for hell, of the human dignity of the prophets, the painter’s haunting empty skin, the whirl of angels exhibiting the instruments of passion, the column and the cross. We sat there for ages looking and quietly chatting the four of us, every so often the din around us would become deafening and the guards would tell us to be quiet and respect this chapel and so we all duly did, for a short while, but people could not contain themselves and the murmur would gradually swell until it burst again punctured by the sharp, routined cautions of the guards. We left with the feeling that something very special had happened to us. Much later in our wanderings around the museum we had to move through the Sistine chapel again to get to somewhere else, by this time it was completely full, a sea of heads staring up. It had something impressive, worrying and even slightly nauseous about it. It was like a giant underground carriage filled to the brim with standing passengers seething with questions and being told to keep quiet.
Later we went to the Stanza’s of Raphael and picked out the characters on the Parnassus and the School of Athens, watched the fire and the man jumping from the wall, as well as the babies being saved and the worried mums and the pope blessing something. The frescoes are wonderful and it would be wrong to compare them to the Sistine chapel just because they are so close, that is cheap. They require greater distance, so that the background knowledge about their composition, historical context, their technique as well as a fair bit of general knowledge and anecdote can come to the fore and do its thing. But they are wonderful. At the same time we were also very tired by then so we had lunch in a café and then wandered the long halls of the Vatican. We stopped at the paintings, Raphaels’ Transfiguration and Caravaggio’s entombment and then we did the Laocoön and the Apollo Belvedere and the amazing torso of Hercules. By this time we were emotionally overloaded and began to giggle, giving imitations of the sculptures and not caring what others thought about it. I discovered for myself a couple of curious holes with feet protruding from them and Rosie gawked horrified at a lady god with countless breasts arranged like the fruit of a papaya tree.
We went to St. Peter’s and first rested on the steps of the colonnade while I went to queue for the security and clothing check for the church. Rosie and Victoria were both found to be too bare and Victoria decisively ripped her shawl in two so that she could cover her shoulders and Rosie could cover her legs. They then walked past the unfortunate ladies who were not quite as resourceful and were following a fruitless strategy of anger and complaint to which the men judging these delicate things were quite impervious. Years and years ago, Victoria and I had entered St Peter’s and “discovered” the Pietá by Michelangelo. We could not hold back the tears then, and we did not manage to this time either. What is it about this thing? It certainly does not have that power when seen on a photograph. Is it the context in which it presents itself? The route, the turning, the walking through, the change from heat to cool, light to dark, harsh to rich surfaces, the surprise, the sequence of spaces and events, the solemnity and enormity of the scale and the absurdly heavy splendour? Is it the surprise of it happening upon you as you enter from outside, while your eyes adjust and you turn to the right and you see this thing? Is it the light and shade on the marble? Is it the pathos of a mother showing her son as a gift to those who know not what they do? Is it the malleability of the marble-as-flesh-and-cloth? Joshua and I stood in front of it. Rosie and Victoria stood a little further back. I don’t know whether Joshua was moved, but he was certainly impressed. There is a place in his mind for Michelangelo, who, until then, together with Raphael, Leonardo and Donatello had been teenage mutant turtles. He seemed quite happy to stand there for a long time soaking up this extraordinary confrontation. Then we carried on around the church. It was a shame that I could not show them Bernini’s staircase, which had been closed off for some reason. So we ambled through the church, letting the materials and the grand gestures perform their magic on our saturated minds. We looked at the empty chair suspended in the air by angels, we looked at the baldacchino, watching its columns do their firework display and we looked at the door with the bellowing swaths of marble, we looked at the floor and the we came out into the heat of the day and spent a happy half an hour sitting in the shade of the colonnade together with hundreds of other people.
On the third day we decided that I would go in early by myself and the others would follow in the afternoon. So I got out at the Spanish Steps, took the elevator in the metro station because it looked so dingy and emerged into the early morning with a view of the Villa Medici to my right and Rome at my feet. I passed by the Palazzo Barberini along my pilgrimage to the San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane. I arrived much too early to enter but spent a long and happy time looking at the façade and the way it is placed in the street. It is unfortunately placed. It would be less so if it weren’t such a busy crossing full of traffic roaring by. The four fountains are curiously wooden in their posture and delightfully childish when compared to the ultra-sophistication of the San Carlo. It is a wayside church, and as you pass it, the façade plays its jingle, showing an extraordinary depth for so small a building. The interior space is musical because, like music, you are enveloped by it. The façade is a melodic theme within the interior of the street; its music is that of daily life crowned. Just occasionally you hear the haunting sounds of a well sung melody in the distance and it makes you turn your head and concentrate and as you pass, the melody intensifies, pushing everything else to the background, reducing the world to a whisper. That is what happens when you pass the church. But the material of its façade is no delicate marble. Just a rather lacklustre travertine; it does not shine. If its materiality helps sing the melody at all, its effect is to dampen it somewhat; its material quality is not easy to celebrate, such as the weird translucence of marble, the easy bewitching beauty of Helen, the broad divinity of gods etc. The San Carlo is a Cinderella, whose beauty needs to emerge from the material by those who recognise it, who have prepared themselves for the way the travertine is turned into liquid, how it explores its own limitations and is orchestrated into a set of rhythms and counter rhythms which only Bach properly knew how to respond to.
I passed ministries with their cockerel guards and Jay-like chauffeurs, waiting for their puffed up quarries to be taken her and there and then saw the curious side views of the twin facades of the Santa Suzanna and my target the Santa Maria della Vittoria. Their facades are taller than the naves lying behind them; at the same time they are thicker than mere screens but stick up haughtily for anyone walking along the road to see that they are no more than facades, beautiful facades, facades worthy of a church offering itself to the street like a beautiful woman or an aristocrat. They need their show to work. Facades are faces, they are what makes Martin Buber’s I-Thou singularity so compelling. I write my face and you read it. My face is for me to write and you to read. Through discourse we are allowed to hope for agreement as to what my face says. Be warned, I am canny and political. These churches speak to the street and the street either listens or doesn’t. I walked along and stopped in front of the Santa Susanna which was closed. I turned around and looked at the round church and then walked on to the Santa Maria della Vittoria and entered. A thin sprinkling of devout ladies, were busy with their devotions and their wishes. A priest about his daily rounds through the church to put everything in its place, saw me coming and resigned himself to another day of having to reconcile religion and tourism. And I just stood there, desperately wanting to take photographs and at the same time feeling ashamed of thereby disturbing the business of the church. I was the first tourist of the day, but not for too long. About five minutes later the drip of sight-seekers increased. Most of them went straight for the Bernini ticked it off and went on their way. I watched them look, and looked at them watching. They rehearsed the bits in their guide and felt happy to move on. They had a busy day. There is much to see and it is hot. I had the luxury of my own time and took it. I sat down and soaked up the volume filled to the brim with material sacrifice. Everywhere the liberal wealth of devotion translated into marbles, patterns and brilliantly executed joints and coverings: layers upon layers of theatricality, folding and refolding and everything playing the role of devotion with such conviction. Of course there was St Theresa but there was also someone on the other side, complementing her, buried like Snow-white in her glass coffin waiting for the prince to come in and kiss her. There are the skulls and bones of polished marble puzzled into the floor and a whole series of altars completely ignored by the tourists because they simply cannot bring us to the ecstatic heights so quickly as the Cornaro chapel can. I looked at the faces of the Cornaro family, saw them entranced by the dubious miracle of a young angel, smiling knowingly before piercing Theresa with the arrow of Christ. What I had forgotten was the role of all the surrounding stuff, the immense wealth of material that enshrines this moment of ecstasy.
||The Baths of Caracalla: the calidarium