October 11, 2012

I said goodbye to Joe early this morning, and hopped on the bus into the city for a tour of the Jewish Ghetto and Transtevere. Before meeting the group, however, I stopped at the Largo di Torre Argentina, the ruins of which include Pompey’s Theatre, the site of Julius Caesar’s assassination. (The assassination did not take place in the Senate House, as that was being renovated at the time.) I stood at the edge of the ruins — a busy Roman street behind me, people racing to work — and played through the Shakespearean scene in my mind as horns honked and scooters buzzed past me. I wonder what the Senators would think of Rome now.

I recently found a great tour company called Context Tours, which is basically guided tours for nerds; they offer “walking seminars” of no more than six people, all lead by people who have doctorates in the tour’s relevant fields. So, instead of “here’s this building” and “here’s a quirky little story about this fountain,” the guides go deep into the history and the art of a given place. This morning’s tour started in the Jewish Quarter, and primarily focused on the Jewish history of the city, beginning in 200 BC and ending in the present day. And I have a question: WHY HAS EVERYONE BEEN SO MEAN TO THE JEWS? I really don’t understand it. There were a couple hundred good years for the Roman Jews in which they were respected members of society, but most of their history is full of incredible prejudice, forceful conversions, mandatory ghettos, and horrible living conditions. And this was all before the Holocaust, when many hundreds were rounded up in the Portico d’Ottavia and shipped to Auschwitz. It really makes no. sense.

After touring the biggest synagogue in Rome and then walking along the streets of the Jewish Quarter and spotting ancient Hebrew here and there, we walked over the Tiber into Trastevere. (Although English speakers call the river that runs through Rome the Tiber, most everyone else (Romans included) call the river the Tevere, thus “Tras” (cross) Tevere.) This neighborhood is another postcard-perfect area that is so beautiful, so quaint, so rustic, so enchanting that I basically wanted to hug every single stone and cat and window box and flower and doorway. But more than hug. Squeeze.

(Random: Did you know that Romans invented concrete? But that this knowledge was lost after the Empire fell, and that concrete wasn’t reinvented until the nineteenth century??)

One of the main sites we visited together in Trastevere was the Chiesa di Santa Cecilia, founded in the second century and housing Saint Cecilia’s tomb. As the story goes, Saint Cecilia was martyred in the year 176 when she would not renounce her religion. (First they tried to smother her with steam, which sounds like such a fun way to go, and when that didn’t work, they tried to chop off her head… three times… which was the legal limit of “tries,” so she suffered for a few days and then finally died. All of this would make a terrible bedtime story for children, FYI). Anyway, in 1599, a few people had cause to open the tomb, and they found that Saint Cecilia’s body was PERFECTLY PRESERVED. Now, here’s the thing, there were a bunch of eyewitnesses, so this may have actually happened. Scientifically speaking, it could just be that she had been embalmed extraordinarily well, and that the conditions were just right for her preservation. Religiously speaking, it was considered a miracle, and so the church immediately hired Stefano Maderno to sculpt her image exactly as he saw it. This statue is now in front of the main alter, and is really quite fascinating and spooky. In the statue, she is in the fetal position and is holding out three fingers (one for each member of the Holy Trinity).

You know, I’ve seen a number of skull-and-crossbones in Rome, and I finally got around to asking about their prevalence when I spotted one outside of Santa Cecilia’s. The guide told me that they an example of a momento mori. Basically, they were around just to remind people of their mortality. Literally, remember, you are going to die. I kind of love this.

When the tour ended, I got a piece of pizza (so. effing. good.) and walked to the Orto Botanico (the botanic gardens). Since I’m leaving Rome in a couple of days, I have started to feel anxious about all of the things I still want to see and do, so I specifically took some time to chill out and slow down. The gardens were stunning, the sunlight giving every single leaf a soft halo, inspiring a sense of quiet and gentle beauty. And then, rare views through the foliage of bronze domes, travertine stone, marble, terracotta…

I spent some time observing a couple of ducks. You know, I think that ducks are my second favorite animal. (Dogs being first, of course.) For a long time, I considered giraffes my second favorite animal, but I think that ducks have risen in the ranks. It’s impossible to not laugh at their quacks and their waddles and their comic attitude. So I was hanging out with this one male duck, who looking at me while quietly making little quacks in the back of his throat and bobbing his head up and down. I sat on the ground and imitated him, wondering what on earth he was doing he kept ducking his head. DUCKING his head! For some reason it BLEW MY MIND to see the origin of that expression. To “duck” your head! As I write this, I realize this may not sound very interesting, but believe me, at the time, it was an INCREDIBLE REVELATION. It’s like the time I invented something and then realized that it already existed and that it was called “salad.”


What with the not sleeping thing, I was quite tired, and so I found an alluring bench under an arbor and surrounded by roses. Within minutes I was asleep and having one of those all-time perfect naps that you can only have while sleeping outside on a late summer day. Divine.

This afternoon, I went on another tour with Context, this one a guided visit through the Museo Nazionale Romano (the Roman National Museum). At first I thought, “uh-oh, not sure if I can do another museum right now,” but the guide was super engaging, and there were only two people on the tour, so I felt comfortable asking lots of questions. The guide has her doctorate in archeology and has been a working archeologist in Rome for forty years, so she was WICKED SMART and really interesting. She even made jewelry be absolutely fascinating, which I didn’t think was possible. (Not that I’m going to start wearing it.)

It is so interesting to me how advanced Ancient Rome was in government, in urban and social infrastructure, in architecture, and building techniques… Rome kind of had it all figured out. Then, after the Western Roman Empire fell, everyone forgot everything and everything went to shit and there were a few hundred years of backward and dirty people. Seriously… how did Rome go from a fully operating sewage system to tossing the contents of their chamber pots out their windows? Ancient Romans were smart. People in the middle ages were kind of dumb.

One highlight from the museum was a perfectly mummified child from the 2nd century, surrounded by all of the items found in her sarcophagus, including dolls, toys, jewelry, and an oil lamp to light the way in the underworld. Another highlight was the huge room full of coins through the ages… Ordinarily, I would be like, “oh, coins, whoop-dee-doo” and walk right through the exhibit, but the guide really helped me understand how coins are an invaluable way to track history. There was also a huge room of classical sculptures and frescoes from the palace of Agrippa’s villa, dating to about 30 BC. (PAINTINGS! ON PARTS OF WALLS! FROM 30 BC!)

As a part of the walking seminar, we left the main museum and crossed the street to visit the Diocletian Baths (which are in remarkable shape) and many more sculpted figures that had been discovered buried nearby. Two things:

1) I used to have a very romantic view of the “ruins,” believing them to be toppled and crumbling and incomplete due to time and weather. This is, however, not at all the case. The Romans were excellent builders, and most of the structures would still be standing if they had been left alone. Unfortunately, though, the Catholic Church used most of the Forum (and many other buildings and monuments) as their personal quarry, knocking down temples and things like, you know, THE COLOSSEUM, to build churches. The reason the ruins are ruins is because their materials were mined by people of a later age.

2) I couldn’t quite understand (and still can’t quite fathom) why so much of Rome is underground. Turns out, after a couple thousand years, the ground gets a whole lot higher. Weather, debris, decomposition, rain, mud, more debris… So things get buried. (Here’s where I’m confused, though… er… how can the ground keep getting higher? All of this matter must be coming from somewhere. Erosion from higher locations? I don’t know. I’m confused.) Anyway, this whole ancient-city-buried-under-the-existing-city thing has really thrown a wrench in Rome’s subway plans. As of now, there are only two metro lines, and they are not very conveniently placed. But whenever the city starts to dig a new tunnel, they come upon a new ancient temple or somesuch. An interesting problem to have, but a problem nonetheless.

The Diocletian Baths encapsulated a huge complex, which was able to support 3,000 bathers at one time. And it was free! For everyone! Hey, did you know that many of the plebeians did not work? There was basically a huge welfare system that provided everyone with food, water, housing, and even entertainment. Many did of course work to increase their quality of living, but all basic needs were met for every Roman Citizen. Huh. Imagine that.

I went to a play tonight at the Piccolo Eliseo. It was called Il Machina dei Desideri, and it was presented in a small little 200-seat theatre. Very low production values, but quality acting. I could not tell you the plot if my life depended on it, though, as it was (of course) in Italian. Here is my guess at the conversation I had with the woman at the box office before the show:

in Italian
Me: Good evening!
Her: Good evening.
Me: One ticket for Kerry Ryan.
Her: OK, I just need to see some identification.
Me: I’m sorry, I don’t speak Italian.
Her: Oh. Um. Do you know that this play is in Italian?
Me: I’m sorry, I don’t speak Italian.
Her: Um.
Me: Do you speak any English?
Her: What are you doing here exactly?
Me: I’m sorry.
Her: This is weird.
Me: Help?
Her: Here, just take your ticket.
Me: Thank you! Goodbye!
Her: Enjoy the show.
Me: What?
Her: Ohmygodnevermind.

After the play I navigated public transportation to the home of my new Couch Surfing host, Barbara, WHO IS ONE OF THE MOST AMAZING PEOPLE IN THE WORLD. Barbara is a screenwriter for Italian film and television, and lives in an affluent neighborhood north of the city with her twelve-year-old twins Zoe and Ludo. From the moment Barbara opened the front door, I felt like I had known her for a lifetime. She guided me into the kitchen where we drank tea and talked until two in the morning about life, about marriage, about divorce, about love, about strong women, about children, about theatre, about art, about everything.

OK. If I don’t go to sleep right this very instant, I fear not only for my health, but also for anyone who has to deal with me tomorrow. Goodnight!