Archive for the 'Ancient Rome' Category

Beneath a City


Today is the last day of Carnevale, the last day before the six weeks of penance; Lent. The beginning of Lent is, of course, marked by the giving of ashes, a reminder that we came from dust, and to dust we will return. Ash Wednesday. Tomorrow.

But today is Tuesday, and the morning was spent several meters beneath Rome in the Catacombe di Priscilla; the Catacombs of Priscilla. 12 kilometers of tunnels on four different levels, constructed in the first half of the first millennium AD. Only a small portion of the catacombs are open to hoi polloi, but, lo! we are not the public, we are young academics under the tutelage of a professor of art history, a professor who has permission from the nuns to go wherever he pleases!

And it pleased him to go many places. You see, the catacombs are, in a sense, policed by the innate human fear of the unknown. They are dark and filled with dead bodies; only a small portion of it is wired with lights and, like moths in the summertime, people like to the stick to the light. Wander off into the darkness? No thanks. But Professor Pace, armed with a nerve wrackingly dull flashlight and a zeal for art history, had no qualms about darting down seemingly random, inky corridors.

The mood was set early on when the professor stopped at an intersection, glanced at the lighted path to the left, the darkened path to the right, and told us to wait right there. He then, of course, went right, lifting the rudimentary iron bar that reminds people to stay on the lighted path and disappeared around the corner into the darkness.

Rustling. Then a bit of silence. Then an arm darts out from around the corner, in its hand half of a decrepit jaw bone. Then a thickly accented voice: “I hope you all brushed your teeth this morning!” as he wiggles the mandible in his hand.


The parts of the catacombs open to the public or otherwise used for clerical purposes have all been cleaned and manicured. Skeletons have been removed, many by early Christians to be venerated in churches as martyrs for the faith (bear in mind, many of these early Christians lived and died before Christianity was legalized in AD 313). The skeletons that were left were dealt with appropriately, with the end result being a clean, well-kept appearance.

But wander down the path less taken and there are bones and dilapidated skeletons everywhere, lying in recessed niches lining countless cavernous hallways, floor to ceiling, as far as the eye can see. It was, in a word, otherworldly. How else can it be described? Like Aeneas with the Sibyl, and Odysseus before him we wandered amongst the dead. At one point, the professor actually grabbed a loose femur, proclaiming himself to be like Hercules, with his club, and attempted to playfully knock me on the head with it — which I expertly parried with my umbrella. And in between all this madness, we were treated to some of the most pithy art I’d ever seen. Early Christian art, from a time when professing your faith meant a certain, gruesome death, here tucked away beneath the city; a bit of spiritual solace from the craziness of the world above.

And tomorrow is Ash Wednesday. The beginning of Lent. From ashes to ashes, from dust to dust.

(Special thanks to Brittany S. for the pictures.)


Yes, Virginia, it does rain inside the Pantheon.


Ah yes, I’d recognize those white lo-top Chucks anywhere. Like Indiana Jones’ hat, like Michael Jackson’s single glove, where there are white lo-top Chucks, there is a Scott H. Gosnell. Or one of thousands of other 18-24 year old wannabe hipsters living on a budget. But in this case, those shoes, along with the feet inside them, are my own. And that wet floor you’re looking at is none other than the floor of church of Santa Maria ad Martyres, known in vogue as the Pantheon.

Normally there wouldn’t be anything terribly peculiar about a wet floor, at least not peculiar enough to merit taking a picture of it. But this is different, as the source of that water is the sky above. Literally, the sky above. You can see the reflection of the sky, pouring in, along with the rain, through the oculus, a massive hole at the apex of the dome. It’s an idiosyncrasy of the Pantheon, a defining feature of sorts, kind of like what I want my white Chucks to be: a physical synecdoche for what is to be Scott H. Gosnell.

I was first introduced to the Pantheon in elementary school and, as it’s bobbed in and out of my coursework over the years, every appearance has, almost without fail, been accompanied by one stubbornly reoccurring question: “So, uh, when it rains outside, does the inside of the Pantheon get wet?”

Yes, it does.


A funny thing happened on the way to the forum…

Forum Romanum

…I went to school. In a three and a half hour tour of the Capitoline Museum and the Forum Romanum led by my professor, I saw enough ancient art to fill a semester’s worth of PowerPoint presentations back home. The Equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius, the Capitoline Venus, the Arch of Septimus Severus, the ruins of the Basilica of Constantine. I walked on the Via Sacra. It was sort of an out of body experience.

I’m taking five classes: Intro to Italian (Mi chiamo Scott. Io sono venti anni.), Ancient Greek, Roman Literature, Ancient Art, and Early Christian and Medieval Art. Of these, the last three have on-site components; in other words, once a week for we meet for a three or four hour professor-guided tour of the artwork and locations studied in the class, with an occasional cappuccino break. Some of the students aren’t entirely keen on this, but I’m a huge fan. This is what I’d be doing if I wasn’t in class: touring. And because these are professors, we get access to certain sites that we otherwise wouldn’t.

I nailed a couple of questions at the beginning of one of my classes (When did the Roman Empire officially cease to exist? Which part of the famous Etruscan statue of the she-wolf suckling Romulus and Remus is not original?) and, for better or for worse, have been given the glossy (if not ephemeral) tag “that classics major with some answers.” In other words, I need to be Johnny on the Spot with names and dates from now on or risk shaming myself and loosing all entitlement. Truthfully, I’d be embarrassed if I didn’t know these things. How many tens of thousands of dollars have Mom and Dad invested in my education?

Anyway, Rome is still awesome.

Barbarian at the gates.

I’m here.

It’s awesome.

I live on the Aventine Hill in a convent on a street that’s been here since the 3rd century B.C.

I have a room to myself with a private bathroom and shower.

I am a 2 and a half minute walk from the Circus Maximus.

The nuns are friendly.

The Italian directors are awesome.

More to come soon.