Roma Aeterna

Trip Start May 05, 2008
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18
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Trip End May 09, 2009


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Sunday, July 13, 2008

Even I as a historian (I guess I can call myself that now!) would be hard-pressed to think of another city with a more storied past, or one that has had more influence on the world, from a political, religious and cultural standpoint than Rome. We could not pass by this city, with its wealth of history surrounding you at every point, and with architectrual treasures around every corner. There's more to visit in this city than even a determined tourist could hope to see in months, but yet the city is a victim of of own success. To start with, images such as that of the Colisseum are so famous that one expects them to be grander than they actually are (though once overcomes the initial mild dissapointment and takes the time to appreciate them, one realizes how amazing they actually are). What coumpounds matters is that Rome is absolutely overrun with tourists, and in the hot hours of July days one meets relatively few veritable Romans. We've heard more English and Spanish here than Italian this past week that we've been here; and during the day the city feels like some sort of glamorous shell of a once great but now dead city, a sort of ancient amusement park set up for tourists, with little life of its own. Of course once the heat of the day dissipates and one wonders through Roman neighborhoods such as the Trastevere late in the evening, one discovers that modern Rome has a different side: that of a lively town full of culture and love of life. This other side cannot fully redeem this city however, because its glorious past has convinced its inhabitants that tourists and the resulting money will always come regardless of how they are treated. Thus, while some Romans are very nice, many of them are actually quite rude to the people on whom they depend upon for a living; and the prices are often far from being reasonable, especially close to tourist areas (which means most of the town).
Despite this, our experience here in Rome has been quite positive overall. We've been staying in a 13th century convent thanks to an old friend, frere Benoit, whom we knew from a long time in Montreal and who is one of the brothers here at a Dominican convent which is the center of th order and was given to Saint Dominic by the pope in 1219: it's quite a feeling to know that the room you're staying in has such a long past, and that just a few meters over in another room, a great intellectual such as Thomas Aquinas (arguably the greatest philosophical mind of the Middle Ages), wrote his books. Thanks to Benoit, we also got to know a series of details we would not have known otherwise about the buildings and history of Rome and we were pointed to churches which don't always show up in guides but which contain artistic treasures by artists such as Michelangelo and Bernini.
We visited a lot here and ran more than one tourist marathon, though we got kind of tired near the end. Most people think of Roman ruins when they think of Rome, and one can indeed find them in droves. What we found the most amazing here though was the Vatican, especially its museums. In terms of the architecture of its halls, we have never been to any other museum which comes close to it, and its collection is on par with the Louvre. For art fanatics, the feeling one gets is elation mixed with despair that one cannot see them all... As well, St. Peter's cathedral is fabulous as it is not only the largest church in Christianity, it is also decorated with such good taste, that even a Protestant cannot help but forget about the immense and almost obscene wealth which must have gone into its creation.
From among the Roman ruins, one could talk for hours of the various temples, monuments and public buildings which still dot the city. But since we don't have the time, two of them surely stand out: the Pantheon and the Colisseum. The Pantheon is an ancient temple dedicated to all the gods built in 27BC, and still has an enormous dome, of such size and graceful proportions that is said to be very difficult to replicate even with modern construction technology. How the Romans, using muscle power, their primitive mathematics and a very  cumbersome numbering system could have built it simply boggles the mind. The Colisseum: that famous arena built 4 decades later, where countless gladiators, wild beasts and christian martyrs died, is another example of these fantastic abilities of Roman engineers. Indeed, after one visits them, and realizes that these are the amazing achievements of a civilization which is long gone, one gets a sense of humility and a shaken confidence in the abilities of our own western civilization to overcome the obstacles facing it. This impression is further compounded when one sees the droves of street vendors around the monuments which these days come from such places as India, the Middle East, Africa and mainland China. I was reminded of the great historian Arnold Toynbee, who said that the Roman Empire fell under the pressure of its own internal proletariat (workers and peasants who were no longer willing to support the system), and external proletariat (barbarians who all wanted to come and live in the rich lands of the empire). Already, Rome feels like a place which lives off of its past, where people don't seem very interested in making sure the system is running in top-shape, and where the modern "barbarians" (no offense to anyone), are moving in attracted by the rich lands of our modern western empire. Rome, a place so rich in history, may just be a place where we could see signs of history repeated...
Unfortunately, due to technical reasons, I wasn't able to upload pictures today (though we have tons), but I'll try to have a few up in a few days.
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