October 8, 2012

With my well-annotated Companion Guide to Rome in hand, I set out this morning to tour the art, architecture, and religious relics of several notable churches:

Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore
Chiesa di Santa Prassade
Chiesa di Santa Maria in Campitelli
Chiesa di Santa Maria Sopra Minerva
Chiesa di San Lorenzo in Lucina
Basilica de San Sebastiano
Chiesa di San Silvestro in Capite
Chiesa di San Carlo al Corso
Chiesa di Santa Maria dei Miracoli
Chiesa di Santa Maria di Montesanto
Chiesa di Santa Maria del Popolo

(These Romans, they really like their Santa Marias.)

Through it all, I somehow managed to avoid church fatigue. Each place was glorious in its own way, holding my attention and often inspiring me to slowly whisper the word “whoa” upon walking inside. Marble and granite, naves and chapels, transepts and ceilings, all painted and sculpted by the Italian masters (Bernini, Michelangelo, Raphael, Giotti, and Caravaggio, to name a few)… the mosaics, the frescoes, the sculptures… amazing.

Here’s something equal parts weird and awesome: many of the churches in Rome tout their store of religious relics. In today’s exploration, just to give you an idea, I saw the baby Jesus’ manger, a piece of the column that Christ was tied to when he was whipped before being crucified, San Carlo Borromeo’s heart, and SAINT JOHN THE BAPTIST’S ENTIRE HEAD.

I was both fascinated by and skeptical of the relics. Do I think the wooden slatted box displayed in Santa Maria Maggiore is the manger from the nativity? No. I don’t. I do think, however, that belief in something imbues it with a certain kind of reality. Did that crib hold Jesus? I don’t think so. But is it Jesus’ crib? Yes. With millions of people praying over it every year, it develops a kind of reality of its own.

For the most part, I am largely desensitized to images of Jesus, what with growing up Catholic and seeing his iconic image everywhere, all the time. I will say, though, that I found some of today’s depictions particularly beautiful. It’s funny — when I see Jesus Christ through the lens of Christianity, my eyes glaze over. But when I view him as a historical figure, I find that I am much more interested in his life and his life’s end. Ecce homo — “behold the man.”

Also seen and experienced on today’s adventure:

- Ponte Fabricio (the little stone bridge to Isola Tiberina, which was built in 62 BC)
- Teatro di Marcello (built by Caesar Augustus to hold 20,000 spectators)
- Portico d’Ottavia (once housing temples and serving as a kind of foyer to the theatre, the people of the Middle Ages turned it into a fish market… talk about a palimpsest)
- Palazzo Mattei di Giove and Piazza Mattei (lovely cobblestoned courtyards, one with the beautiful Fontana delle Tartaroughe)
- Piazza de Popolo (a plaza opening onto the city from its northern entrance in the Aurelian Wall)
- actual chestnuts roasted over an actual fire
- many more obelisks (the one in the Piazza del Popolo was made in the 13th century BC! THAT’S OLD!)
- the light on the Travertine stones at sunset, which turns the entire city a light and glowing rose hue
- the Mauseleo di Augusto, which Caesar Augustus built to serve as the final resting place for his family
- an awesome dinner in a rustic wooden trattoria
- an open-top bus ride through the city to see the illuminated monuments, the cool evening air on my face and shoulders and knees

Tomorrow: the Vatican!