October 7, 2012

I took the path of the Gladiators today, slowly walking through the dark and expansive stone gangway toward the bright daylight of the Colosseum floor. I moved with determination, feeling the weight of an invisible sword in my hand and the cool metal of my invisible helmet, causing my deep and catching breath to echo back into my ears. And then the dazzle of the light, the grit of the sand beneath my feet, the roar of 70,000 people, the gut-wrenching fear, the outward calm and bravado, the gladiators from the opposite side of the arena approaching with grim expressions, the readying stance, the brief eye contact with the Emperor, the drumming, the trumpets, the noise, the feel of iron and steel, the sweat…

I pretended the hell out of the Colosseum today.

Also: I stood where Marc Antony delivered his oratory speech for Caesar, the entire Forum rebuilding itself in front of me, gleaming white marble and columns and steps, and I was overwhelmingly floored to be in the same place as such a profound moment in history.

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones;
So let it be with Caesar. The noble Brutus
Hath told you Caesar was ambitious:
If it were so, it was a grievous fault,
And grievously hath Caesar answer’d it.
Here, under leave of Brutus and the rest—
For Brutus is an honourable man;
So are they all, all honourable men—
Come I to speak in Caesar’s funeral.
He was my friend, faithful and just to me;
But Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honourable man.
He hath brought many captives home to Rome
Whose ransoms did the general coffers fill;
Did this in Caesar seem ambitious?
When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept:
Ambition should be made of sterner stuff:
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honourable man.
You all did see that on the Lupercal
I thrice presented him a kingly crown,
Which he did thrice refuse. Was this ambition?
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
And, sure, he is an honourable man.
I speak not to disprove what Brutus spoke,
But here I am to speak what I do know.
You all did love him once, not without cause:
What cause withholds you then, to mourn for him?
…If you have tears, prepare to shed them now.
You all do know this mantle. I remember
The first time ever Caesar put it on;
'Twas on a summer's evening, in his tent,
That day he overcame the Nervii:
Look, in this place ran Cassius' dagger through:
See what a rent the envious Casca made;
Through this the well-beloved Brutus stabb'd;
And as he pluck'd his cursed steel away,
Mark how the blood of Caesar follow'd it,
As rushing out of doors, to be resolved
If Brutus so unkindly knock'd, or no;
For Brutus, as you know, was Caesar's angel:
Judge, O you gods, how dearly Caesar loved him!
This was the most unkindest cut of all;
For when the noble Caesar saw him stab,
Ingratitude, more strong than traitors' arms,
Quite vanquish'd him: then burst his mighty heart;
And, in his mantle muffling up his face,
Even at the base of Pompey's statue,
Which all the while ran blood, great Caesar fell.
O, what a fall was there, my countrymen!
Then I, and you, and all of us fell down,
Whilst bloody treason flourish'd over us.
O, now you weep; and, I perceive, you feel
The dint of pity: these are gracious drops.
Kind souls, what, weep you when you but behold
Our Caesar's vesture wounded? Look you here,
Here is himself, marr'd, as you see, with traitors.
Good friends, sweet friends, let me not stir you up
To such a sudden flood of mutiny.
They that have done this deed are honourable:
What private griefs they have, alas, I know not,
That made them do it: they are wise and honourable,
And will, no doubt, with reasons answer you.
I come not, friends, to steal away your hearts:
I am no orator, as Brutus is;
But, as you know me all, a plain blunt man,
That love my friend; and that they know full well
That gave me public leave to speak of him:
For I have neither wit, nor words, nor worth,
Action, nor utterance, nor the power of speech,
To stir men's blood; I only speak right on;
I tell you that which you yourselves do know;
Show you sweet Caesar's wounds, poor poor dumb mouths,
And bid them speak for me: but were I Brutus,
And Brutus Antony, there were an Antony
Would ruffle up your spirits and put a tongue
In every wound of Caesar that should move
The stones of Rome to rise and mutiny.

So. Good.

I have worked my way east, traveling through the history of western civilization, and now I am here, in Rome.
I cannot believe I am here.

This afternoon I rode my bicycle round and round the fountain in the Piazza Navona, and then visited Il Convento dei Cappuccine, in the crypts of which stand posed skeletons in monk’s robes and sculptures of bones: hourglasses of scapula, wall sconces of skulls and vertebrae, lamps of ribs and jaws… a decorated statuary of bones, a macabre and haunting illustration of mortality. Adorning one room of the ossuary is the following inscription: quello che voi siete noi eravamo; quello che noi siamo vol sarete (what you are now we used to be; what you are now you will be).

Later, in a turn toward the light of day (and the love of living), I sat on the Spanish Steps and ate gelato, gazing down on the masses surrounding the fountain. And later still: Trevi Fountain, the Pantheon, the obelisks of Ramses II, Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, the Sacred Area of Largo Argentine…

And then, tonight, riding my bicycle eastward, I came upon Palazzo Barberini, open late. I went inside to find a chamber orchestra playing in one of the salas, and then walked from room to room, finding first a Bernini, then a Caravaggio, and then Raphael, El Greco, Tintoretto, Bronzino, Hans Holbein…

I returned to the apartment sixteen hours after I left it, body sore and mind expanded.

Tomorrow: The Appian Way

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