October 5, 2012

I really, really, really like it here.

I know I’ve only been here for a day and a half, but there are SO MANY INTERESTING PLACES in Rome. SO MUCH HISTORY. GAH! GAAAAAAH! I’ve having nerdgasms left and right. EEEEEEEEEEEEEEE. Man oh man. This is the heart of Western Civilization! SO MUCH STARTED HERE. Seriously. Things like, oh, I don’t know, DEMOCRACY. (I accidentally just typed “democrazy,” FYI.) Oh, and LAW. And ALL OF THE ROMANCE LANGUAGES. And don’t forget ARCHITECTURE, WINE, PUBLIC PARKS, PUBLIC LIBRARIES, PUBLIC BATHS, IRRIGATION, SANITATION, STORES, CIVIL SERVICES, EDUCATION, COINS, and AQUEDUCTS.

And the calendar. And, oh yeah, ROADS.

[Editor's Note: I am now in Athens, and I have to say that Greece actually deserves credit for Democracy. My bad.]

My ride for the next few days is Tess’ spare bike. It’s a little white Graziella one-speed. I have named him Sergio.

Sergio and I followed Tess into the historic center this morning, where she was leading a private tour for a couple of well-to-do Americans. I was pretty sure I was going to die, but it was the fun “I think I’m going to die” feeling, not the terrifying “I think I’m going to die” feeling. I rode super fast between buses and mopeds, over cobblestones and speed bumps, dodging tourists and taxicabs and doing my best to DOMINATE (which is the only way to ride a bicycle in this city). And helmet? What’s a helmet? I didn’t see one all day.

Anyway, Tess went off to do her tour and I went off to COMPLETELY FALL IN LOVE WITH THIS CITY. I wandered around the narrow streets, clenching my fists and making high-pitched noises in the back of my throat and smiling. Weird, yes. But I don’t care. I love it love it love it love it love it.

All right, I’m going to try to get it together and write coherently. Also, I just ate a bunch of chocolate.

What is it about narrow cobblestoned streets that is so appealing? What makes them so romantic? Perhaps it is the interplay of light and shadows… Perhaps it is the feeling that everything is closer, and therefore more vivid… Perhaps it is the throwback to different times, older times… Whatever it is, there is something so very perfect about these places, inspiring me to invent new words for the way that light gently illuminates the buildings at an angle, for the way that the cobblestones make me unconsciously slow my speed, for the way that the whole visible world can be seen in front of me, with no need to turn your head. Illumitexture. Cobblepace. Alleysight.

This city has so many stories. And there are cities within the cities, ruins amid newer constructions, hidden basements of temple foundations, ancient columns peeking out from building facades, streets named and renamed and renamed. Romans used to write on wax coated tablets that could be smoothed over and used again. A palimpsest. This entire city is one big palimpsest, having been created and then recreated and recreated, every stone resting on or touching a stone from the time before. The anachronisms around every corner pull me in and tangle me up and make me pine for all of the times I have not lived.

After getting lost amid the streets and piazzas and markets of the old town, I miraculously found Sergio again, and we sped off to the Campidoglio (Capitaline Hill). Tess lent me an excellent book (The Companion Guide to Rome by Georgina Mason), which is a series of heavily annotated walking tours, devoting several pages of history and commentary to each site. Georgina Mason recommended starting where it all began, which is the old capitol of the city, so I parked Sergio and walked up Michaelango’s cordonata to the Piazza del Campidoglio, the wide entrance of which is flanked by enormous sculptures of Castor and Pollux. Ascending the cordonata, the large and elevated statue of Marcus Aurelius silhouetted against the Palazzo Senatorio, I had the distinct impression of traveling backwards through time. This impression multiplied when I walked around the Palazzo Senatorio to a bluff which overlooks the ruins of the Roman Forum: the center of ancient Roman life, the heart of the city, the place where Julius Caesar stood, and Mark Antony, and Brutus and Cicero and Cato lived and breathed and ruled. The Forum lies in the small valley between the Capitoline and Palatine Hill, and is now a ruin of weathered and mined marble columns, arches, and foundations. By looking through the lens of a mind’s eye, however, it is a bustling and vibrant centerpiece of history. I stood for a long time, ghosted scenes playing out before me.

I spent the afternoon in the Capitoline Museums, the first public collection of classical sculpture in the modern world. I wandered for a couple of hours amid statues and busts, startled by the realistic faces and locks of hair and flowing robes. I am visiting the Coliseum and the Forums tomorrow, and my imagination is now peopled by men with short hair and strong profiles, and women with loosely gathered hair and almond-shaped eyes. The museum had a special exhibit on the likenesses of the five “good” Emperors who consecutively and faithfully served Rome, ushering in a time of great expansion and great prosperity (Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius). Each of these emperors named his successor, with succession based on skills and leadership as opposed to bloodline. I don’t know too much about these guys yet, but they seem like a bunch of pretty amazing people, and I’m interested to learn more about them.

Leaving Capitaline Hill, I found Sergio the Bicycle right where I left him, and we took off to find some good gelato at San Crispino (thanks, Ari!). I got half chocolate and half mandarin orange. Yummmm. And then I biked through the narrow streets to find the Pantheon.

It’s always magical to see something for the first time. Especially something that I have never even seen pictures of before. This can only happen once: you don’t know what something looks like, and then you do. And between those two moments, there is a space of breath and light and consciousness that is so beautiful and so brief. I live for these moments.

The Parthenon was built by Hadrian around AD 120 on the same site as Agrippa’s temple (built in 27 BC). The outside of the building is so iconic, so Roman, large marble columns supporting a triangular portico, inscribed with the words M. AGRIPPA. L.F. COS. TERTIUM FECIT (“Marcus Agrippa, son of Lucius, Consul for the third time, built this.” He didn’t, actually, but Hadrian wasn’t apparently in favor of putting his name on things, so he decided to memorialize Agrippa’s previous work on the same site. The Pantheon has the largest unreinforced dome in the world (bigger even then St. Peter’s and St. Paul’s!) and was originally built to worship the all of the Roman gods — it was like your one-stop god-shop for prayer. After Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in 312 AD, however, the Pantheon was reimagined as a church.

I expected to walk into a building with different rooms and spaces, but it is actually one huge rotunda, the dome rising 43 meters above the floor at its apex, the whole thing illuminated naturally by an oculus at the top of the dome. So much space, so much air. It was stunning.

Another thing that I didn’t expect to find was Raphael’s tomb. I’ve been a fan of Raphael ever since I saw his sketch of an angel that — in an inexplicable and profound way — spoke to me. Raphael’s tomb is inscribed with an epitaph that translates “Here lies Raphael: when he lived the great mother of all things [Nature] feared to be outdone, and when he died she feared too to die.” Beautiful.

Tess met up with me at the Pantheon, and we rode our bikes out of the old city, with several stops along the way at a few interesting sites (how wonderful it is to be friends with a tour guide!). I’ll write more about these places later, though, as it’s getting late, and I have to be up early to get to the Coliseum on time.

Tomorrow: time travel!