Spectator's Journal

Roman Fever

A city like no other, maybe even more so this time of year.

By 4.4.12

What do you call a city with a jail named Regina Coeli (Queen of Heaven)? For the last 3,000 years, you call it Rome.

Forty years had passed since I had last visited Rome, broke and hitchhiking through Europe the summer after my college graduation. Quite frankly, at the time, I wanted to see a few sites and head north to what I thought were less crowded and expensive destinations such as Florence. In truth, I did not give it the time a city with so many layers of history, architecture, archaeology and theology deserves. It was a once-through, lightly, trip.

My wife and I had resolved to commemorate the tenth anniversary of my successful bone marrow transplant with a pilgrimage-cum-celebration, a trip to the Eternal City and, of course, Vatican City, which is embedded within it. We also planned to tack on a few nights in Madrid on the way home since I had never been to Spain and Mary had not been there since high school.

The measure of how wonderful this trip was can be gauged by our good luck in returning home on St. Patrick's Day on Aer Lingus, which United employed as its carrier for the return flight out of Madrid. Call it the luck of the Irish-Germans.

Three things immediately strike the visitor coming into Rome from Leonardo da Vinci Airport: the beauty of the city, the way Romans drive and motor with abandon, and the graffiti -- omnipresent to an extent I did not recall from my previous visit decades ago.

Coming into an intersection or traffic circle, one is swept up in a literal swarm of Smart Cars, Fiats, motorcycles, and other smallish vehicles for which traffic lanes are, well, optional. Riding along in the cab in the left lane, I would often get a start when a pair of motorcyclist appeared just out my left-hand window, heading in my direction but in the lane for the oncoming traffic. To adapt one of Bill Murray's formulations in Ghostbusters, traffic laws are guidelines, not rules, for Romans.

This graffiti phenomenon seemed to me a kind of profanation, given the treasures the city offers on almost every block. If you Google up "graffiti in Rome," you find 7,960,000 entries. So I am not alone in this feeling. I was informed that some theorize that this is an expression of a youth culture (I use the word reluctantly) spread by the Internet. I do not mean to dwell on this. After all, the Italians are master preservationists and restorers of great art and architecture. So I would not want to call this a dominant part of the Roman scene, but it was jarring nevertheless.

Our hosts were renting a very fine apartment right across the street from the walls of Vatican City. No graffiti here, just the papal coat of arms affixed at various places along its great length. Not only did our benefactors provide us with an ideal location from which to explore both cities, but they were excellent guides, generous with their time, and most informative on a range of topics ranging from art history to fine dining. Our tourism coefficient was improved immensely by their tireless attention to our needs.

Since we were grateful pilgrims, we offered thanks at the resting places of our favored saints whom we had often petitioned for intercessory prayers to God the Father and his only Son during my battle with cancer. And we prayed for that excellent institution and staff at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore who were instrumental in my recovery.

Like pilgrims dating back to at least the time of Chaucer, we spent too much money at the shops selling pricey rosaries, prayer cards, icons and the like so we could take them to St. Peter's Square at noon on Sunday to pray the noontime Angelus with Pope Benedict XVIII, along with, oh, 25,000 of our closest friends and co-religionists from around the world. We were pleased to help the Roman economy in these difficult times.

The Holy Father blessed us and the entire throng of visitors along with our sacramental items which we planned to distribute back home to children, grandchildren, and friends. Like his predecessor, John Paul II, he displayed his linguistic abilities by addressing the assemblage in half a dozen languages to the enthusiastic applause of the Italians, French, German, Polish, Brazilian, and Spanish in attendance.

If any ghosts from the Roman Empire were in attendance, they would have been very pleased with his fluent Latin, too.

For the visitor who dedicates him- or herself to exploring Rome, the city presents an opportunity for time traveling back and forth over several millennia and epochs, pagan and Christian, ancient, medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, modern and contemporary.

The obvious case is St. Peter's Basilica, starting with the Excavations, including a second century pagan necropolis, once at street level, now beneath the existing structure and culminating in the present towering dome. Today's Basilica replaced an earlier church erected by Constantine after his conversion which resulted in burying over the pagan burial sites, the necropolis, in the process.

Paul Johnson in his slim, informative volume, The Renaissance: A Short History, captures the sweep and drama of the construction of this historic church:


Thus this great church took more than two centuries to be built, and was the work of more than a dozen architects under thirty-two Popes, some of whom interfered directly and imposed their own ideas or vetoes, and it spanned the mid-fifteenth-century Renaissance, the High Renaissance and the Baroque (I am ignoring the sacristy and the clocks, the work of Rococo times.) This wonderful building, closely examined, bears all the marks of its long evolution and manifold progenitors. Yet, as with its dome, because we are used to it, it looks right, as though the endless squabbles, changes of plan and demolitions had never been.


Bramante and Michelangelo made important and necessary contributions to St. Peter's, but the entire process was multi-generational and grounded in a religious and artistic tradition transcending any one person.

I was struck by how much more archaeological work has been done over the years and how well preserved and interpreted the sites of Rome are today. Again, the Excavations under St. Peter's, revealing the former necropolis or city of the dead, along with the painstaking work to authenticate the remains of St. Peter after his crucifixion upside down, are well preserved under climate-controlled conditions. Professional archaeologists of the Ufficio Scavi lead tours that accommodate 115 people per day versus the 15,000 that tour the Basilica above ground. The "Scavi" tour is very impressive, but you need to make a reservation.

The story of how the excavation proceeded over decades and the effort to verify the remains of St. Peter is well told, or so I am informed by my wife and others, in John Evangelist Walsh's The Bones of St. Peter: The First Full Account of the Search for the Apostle's Body.

The Basilica of San Clemente, run by Irish Dominicans, is another opportunity for time traveling in place. The current church, or at least part of it, dates from the 13th century and has a Baroque façade. Inside, the apse is resplendent with a stunning 12th century mosaic, The Triumph of the Cross, just one of the priceless items in this house of worship where St. Cyril, missionary to the Slavs, is buried.

The first archaeological level is about 4 meters below the Basilica. Here the early Christian basilica dates from the mid fourth to the early fifth century. You then descend stairs to the second level, ten meters below current street level, first excavated in 1857. Here there are remains of a first century building that was turned into a Mithraeum, seat of an eastern pagan cult of the god Mithras, between the second and third centuries, and used up until the fourth century. There are walkways directing the visitor and the lighting is very subtle by design. I could go on.

The visitor with only limited time to savor the delights of the Eternal City is inevitably frustrated or completely over-dosed on the magnificence, say, of the Villa Borghese and its collection of classical sculpture and other significant works of art. There are also the standard tourist destinations, always worth a visit-the Forum (there are several, actually), the Coliseum, the Vatican Museum and Sistine Chapel and the Spanish Steps. But it is the surprise of discovering yet another Caravaggio painting, or other great artist, in yet another beautiful church or basilica that makes Rome such an amazing place.

San Luigi dei Francesi, the French national church, is a beautiful thing. It is named after the patron saint of my hometown, St. Louis. In the last chapel on the left, just before the high altar, are three of Caravaggio's most beautiful works in Rome: The Calling of St. Matthew, The Martyrdom of St. Matthew and St. Matthew and the Angel. Spectacular.

While viewing these painting, along with a sizeable number of other visitors, the spotlights went out eliciting a collective groan. We immediately scrambled for more change to put money in the box to bring back the illumination before a holy riot broke out.

For me the most impressive Caravaggio is The Conversion of St. Paul. This is an outstanding Baroque painting by an artist with a volcanic temper. The famous scene depicted from the Bible displays a dramatic interplay of light and darkness with Paul under his horse's uplifted leg looking at some distant source of illumination, hands upraised. Caravaggio's work "introduced his new and spectacular epoch of realism and scattered the last, lingering leaves of the Renaissance to the four winds," writes Johnson.

The painting can be found in another lovely church, Santa Maria del Popolo, nestled under the Aurelian Wall, along with another by the same artist depicting The Crucifixion of St. Peter. It is really an embarrassment of riches wherever one looks in Rome.

Roman fever is contagious. The Eternal City is like no other. It was painful to contemplate our departure. But Madrid beckoned, and we left the Italian for the Iberian Peninsula with great expectations.



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About the Author

G. Tracy Mehan III served at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the administrations of both Presidents Bush. He is a consultant in Arlington, Virginia, and an adjunct professor at George Mason University School of Law.