Rome: The Eternal City … For Now
It is a writer’s job to translate experience into words, yet never have I encountered a subject so troublesome as Rome. Having felt previously that nothing was beyond written description, Rome leaves me breathless, wordless. It intimidates and emasculates me; my arsenal of adjectives seem barely able to chip Rome’s crumbled outer layers, let alone touch upon its essence, and so I feel compelled to mask my inadequacies behind loftier philosophical justifications. Perhaps the Eternal City is a name bestowed not in light of the strength of the once seemingly unstoppable Roman Empire, but rather due to the fact that, like the God in whose image it is built, our minds and our languages cannot comprehend what is eternal, only what is fleeting. Could it be that human hands alone did not build Rome? That they were divinely aided, and thus the city evades description by virtue of its immortality?
I visited Rome having just completed my second year at university, following a course rich in philosophy that led me to look behind the facades and the monuments to try to find common ground between the abstract principles of my education and a place rightly considered among the key starting points of Western civilization. Very quickly I saw the irony in Rome’s nickname, for our modern mode of tourism has rendered the city unkind to those who stand still. On several occasions when attempting to escape into deeper contemplation, my reveries were quickly trampled on by the incessant din of my fellow tourists.
Perhaps it was naive of me to presume a right to mental solitude in such a crowded place, like the guy reading a book while walking down a busy street, unaware that his complacent wandering gets in everybody else’s way. Whatever guiding philosophical principles (if any) emanate from the city, surely they are intended for the benefit of all mankind and not just those who expect red carpet treatment for their intellectual walking tour.
All that said, escaping the crowds and retreating into one’s own thoughts is not impossible in Rome. And it is in these quiet, fleeting moments that the city really speaks to you. Standing before something as awe-inspiring as Basilica Papale di San Pietro or the Colosseum deserves a subsequent period of quiet retreat during which one can finish absorbing the sight. For such marvelous constructions are too grand to be taken in fully then and there, and will still form impressions on the mind long after you have left. To complete the picture, the senses must remain unclogged for a while. Take time to meditate on what you have seen, if necessary. They say that Rome was not built in a single day, and so must you take your time in seeing it.
When in Rome, trust your senses. So many people forget to do this, investing too heavily in the limited power of phone cameras and selfie sticks to capture their experiences. Perhaps it is only when our minds become saturated by excessive noise, light, chatter, imposing buildings and general chaos that we become more aware of our most basic sensory power. So much of an experience is lost through the lens of a camera that there is no need to fuss over the perfect snap of the Colosseum. It has been captured from every conceivable angle by dedicated photographers for our perusal on the internet at any time. For those truly interested in harnessing the magic of the city through personal reflection, though, the lack of one’s own space and time to think in Rome can be infuriating.
But whatever insights you extract from a visit to Rome, you are likely to touch upon a number of commonly occurring trains of thought which exist in the minds of scores of other visitors. For me, no worthwhile account of Rome could neglect to mention the city’s age-old marriage with Catholicism. Rome owes much of its grandeur to a dominant and prolonged religious influence, a foundation of superstition and dogma, of unashamed devotion to a higher order in whose image the city is built and still, to this day, heavily anchored. Rome, the nerve centre of the Catholic world, once a majestic vessel anchored in calm waters, now rocks in the pressing winds, holding fast to a bedrock of tradition that is no longer immovable but instead begins to shift and shake uncomfortably with each advancing wave of skepticism and social change. The ship itself rots on the inside, beset by sex scandals and corruption, yet on the outside appears to stand firm, a model of longevity and virtuousness, confident in its ability to weather the changing tides.
It is the atheist who would, I reckon, be among the first to notice the benefits of a consistent intertwining between the city and organised religion. And we non-believers ought to give thanks, if not to God then to the people who have sought to sustain his presence throughout the city. It does not take a Catholic to marvel at the mind-boggling intricacy of the decorations inside the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, none of which would have come into being without such strict religious observance but which can still be appreciated on aesthetic merit alone, without the viewer having to contemplate their more elevated raison d’être. But as impressive as such decorations are, they can seem ostentatious when examined through more critical eyes. At which point do the churches and cathedrals become sufficiently adequate reflections of faith as to make the people worthy in the eyes of God? (Assuming that’s what they’re driving at.) Or rather, did nations suppose themselves locked in perpetual competition to erect the most sophisticated and detailed representations of their religiosity, a constant quest for one-upmanship? If this were the case then from experience to this point I would call it a dead heat between Italy and Spain. But if Judgement Day came and we were all hauled before the Lord for reckoning, what redemption would the extravagant carvings and adornments of cathedrals offer against the hatred, discrimination and brutality that for millennia have been carried out in the name of faith?
Such vexing questions continue to visit me long after having left the city. Indeed, taking in Rome’s many religious monuments brought up far more questions than answers. It seems that the people who made Rome what it is today had some pretty sound ideas of what would show their faith and please the Lord, and apparently they were determined to do it using as much money and gold and other precious materials as possible. Today the Catholic Church continues to rake in obscene sums in revenue, and while we can perhaps all agree that the maintenance of religious monuments is important, if not for religious purposes then for the sake of cultural heritage and tourism, there seems to be a misallocation of funds here, which becomes all the more evident when you divert your gaze from the historical and mythological figures gracing the cathedral walls to the living, breathing Romans of the 21st century. Italy is in some serious trouble right now. We are all at least vaguely aware of its economic maladies, and while they may not have the severity of those facing Greece, they are pressing nonetheless. A name like the Eternal City seems almost laughably absurd for the capital of a country that has spent much of the last decade dancing on the brink of financial ruin.
One ought to turn an especially critical gaze on a nation’s capital in a time like this. In Rome you are discouraged from giving money to hungry, ashen-faced beggars yet reminded to give generously to cathedrals whose ceilings are covered in gold. Under circumstances like this, Rome takes on a different light, and cracks start to appear in the veil of faith that the city has plunged vast sums into maintaining against the societal shifts that could easily have brought about the downfall of the Church, or at least rocked its perch a little harder. Of course the economic and political woes extend far beyond the capital, but perhaps nowhere in the country – even the West in general – are the magnificent heights of Catholic devotion and the sickening, rock-bottom plight of the worst-off citizens as striking as in Rome.
A cynical yet common retort I hear on this matter is that one ought to take visible manifestations of poverty with a pinch of salt. The ‘beggars’, so the argument goes, are not poor at all, but are only appearing needy so as to fool you into giving them money. Or they’re operating under an authority figure who uses their begging as a means to channel money into his own pockets. Curious; it seems the Church and the street beggars have more in common than I thought. And herein lies another awkward question: is it morally better to give money to somebody on the street who might genuinely need it, or to an institution that certainly does not?
The late George Carlin joked that God was without flaw but for his apparently insatiable appetite for human money, and this for me remains the biggest stain on Catholicism’s record. It brings up a question of allegiance. Are we to keep looking upwards and throwing into the ‘offerta‘ boxes in the hope that our donations will eventually coax God into delivering Italy from its troubles, or is it time we cast our heads down to the people around us to see how we can help each other? Maybe God already gave up on Rome, leaving behind empty cathedrals that still echo with the prayers of the faithful and the desperate. Maybe all we have now is each other.
By Lorenzo Gaertner