Archive for the 'Italy' Category

Chapter I.i: It’s 8am and the bells are ringing.

I.i

It’s 8am and the bells are ringing.  The bells are always ringing in this city.  They ring from the seven low summits and the shallow valleys between; they count time and call the faithful and otherwise remind a man of his own mortality.

There’s an empy bottle of cheap chianti on the nightstand, and next to that a Bible, and on top of that a pack of cigarettes, and next to all of this is a bed, and in the bed a young man stirred.  The young man sat up, and looked around the room.  Barren, cool, stoic.  He blinked the sleep away and banished his hangover with a wince and got to his feet.  The stone floor chilled him as he walked to the window, and the crucifix on the wall hung heavily as he passed.   His room was littered with books and empty wine bottles, mostly philosophy and mostly red.  A new day, a new bottle, the same book.

The young man pushed open the wooden shutters, and he was filled with Rome.  He’d been here nearly three months and could feel the novelty fading away.  Still, the view of the ancient and eternal cityscape was something to behold.  Terracotta roof tiles undulated on top of pale buildings as far as he could see, and in the distance was dome of St. Peter’s Basilica, at once both ominous and beautiful.

Get up, shave, get dressed.  Go through the motions.  Even in this paradise, the motions are the same.  The motions are always the same, and the banality used to irked the man but now he mused at the ubiquity of it.  A part of the human condition!  All men go through the motions.   But there was the faintest pang of anticipation today, because today there was something new:  a job deep underground.

Bongiorno Tomasso!” bellowed the plump priest as the young man descended the staircase and entered the kitchen.  Like his room, the kitchen is spartan, old, charming.  The mason work is medieval, and the morning sun pours into the tall room through the highly mounted windows, giving the room a warm, cavernous glow which matched the demeanor of the priest within.

Bongiorno Padre,” said Thomas, “how are you?”

In Italiano, Tomasso, in Italiano!” he replied.

Thomas nodded and offered a weak smile.  “Come stai?”

Bene, bene! I have made you breakfast, Tomasso.  Please, sit, sit.”

Thomas took at seat at the long, wooden table in the center of the kitchen.   He thought it was oaken, but thought it might also be poplar.  He was no carpenter, and the monastery reminded him of this regularly.  It is smooth and worn and beautiful, like everything in this city.  The priest waddled toward the young man, an affable grin on his face. And Thomas wondered, as he often had before, Why is this guy always so happy? And Thomas was jealous of it.

“Here you go Tomasso,” said the priest, “eggs and toast and black coffee, just like you told me.  Just like in America, yes?”

Thomas smiled and said, “Si, Padre, just like in America, just like home.  Grazie.”

Prego!” said the priest with a ivory grin, “You Americans, Tomasso, your breakfasts…They are big, like a lunch!  Why are they this way?”

Thomas put down his mug and jabbed at his eggs.  “I’m not sure, Padre.  I guess we just need the energy to get through the day.”

Si, you Americans, you love to work,” said the priest, and shook his head and clucked his tongue.  Thomas ignored this is an knowingly sort of way.

“Speaking of,” said the young man as he finished his coffee and stood up, “I need to get going.  I don’t want to be late.”

Thomas walked through the central courtyard and exited the monastery though the heavy, bronze plated doors.  The springtime air on the Aventine Hill is crisp and lingering and abuzz with the life of the city below.  Thomas liked this, and it reminded him a bit of central California, where he grew up.  He lit a cigarette and walked along the Clivo dei Publicci, down the hill to the bus stop, where he would catch a ride to the catacombs.

Thomas did not like work, at least not in the traditional sense, and the crowded bus reminded him of this.  More people going through the motions.

Spring Break, Part the Fifth

I write, now, of a day long anticipated. It’s easy to romanticize it. Maybe it’s the human thing to do: think about your heritage and romanticize it. You paint a sepia picture of the land of your ancestors, crisp and glossy and full of cultural purity. There’s a simplicity about it that cultivates a sense of innocence — a mental refuge from the modern vices of your intricate life.

I hadn’t anticipated this day would start as it had: with me sitting on the beach, next to my cousin’s girlfriend, watching him and his friends surf. But it did, and in doing so it paved the way for a journey back into time as the the day progressed.

Rónán surfs for an hour or so, and my anticipation swells with the waves. We’re soon on the road again, making our way back across the Brandon Mountains and through Dingle. We arrive at a rather large house perched high on a hill with a commanding view of the bay and the town, which looks small and flat in the distance. The house belongs to Maura and Shane O’Connor — she is Tim’s sister, making her my Grandmother’s niece, and my second cousin, once removed.

Maura looks to be in her late 60s or early 70s and is of average stature. She has soft-looking skin and a kind face that always seems like it’s about to explode with expression. She beckons us in with all the unabridged hospitality that seems to be the norm in this land. She guides us to the dining room where a quaint and bountiful lunch awaits us.  She pours tea and we launch into conversation: about the family, about Dingle, about friends, and about me. Soon a new-looking, dark blue Lexus sedan rolls into the driveway. Doors open and close, and soon Shane appears in the dining room. He’s a fleshy man, with greyish white hair and a high brow. His wit is both quick and sharp, and his good humor reflects the way he is still in touch with his humble beginnings, despite the fortune he has made.

He had run a butcher shop in Dingle, and spent years living in quarters above the shop. Now he lived high above the whole town. Enraptured by the panorama, I remark that it’s a “million dollar view.” Maura smiles and tells me that my grandfather said the same thing when he first saw it.

The surrounding land is speckled with livestock here and there; mostly cattle.   Rónán points to the far corner of the lot, along the main road into Dingle, where there seems to be some sort of large construction project under way.

“What’s happening down there?” he asks.

“Ah, they’re building a new hospital,” Maura replies.

“You sold some land then, did ya?” says Ró.

Maura smiles and shakes her head, and I think I catch a faint blush.

Rónán inquires further, but with grace and humility she sidesteps the question, and I get the distinct impression that the O’Connors may have donated the land for the hospital.

They’re a munificent bunch, my Irish relatives. They believe in the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, who proceeds from the Father and the Son and through him they act out of love for Love, and through love they expect nothing in return.

Lunch is over now, and Ró and Sarah must be going. We say our goodbyes and extend mutual offers of hospitality, vowing to stay in touch and see each other again. I met him less than 24 hours ago, but I feel like I’ve known Rónán for years. A filial bond, perhaps, or maybe just a simple compatibility of character, but I feel so immensely related to him, and I know that it’s the result of the profoundly good upbringing shared by our ancestors, passed on through the generations. They pull out of the driveway, and I feel a dull sadness at their departure, but the sun is high in the sky, and, at any rate, Shane, Maura and I must be going as well.

* * *

Speak to me. From the hills and the rocks and the jaggedly cropped mountains, speak to me. What stories can you tell? What stories of triumph, what tales of sorrow? Remind me of the laughter and the love, but tell me also of the pain and the anguish. This wild landscape, this melancholy air; how did you produce such a civilized, virtuous, warmhearted people?

* * *

The road dodges and bends with the buckled landscape. We pass through boggy lowlands, and not another car is in sight. Sheep dot the land like spilled salt, each branded with a splash of green or blue or pink or some other bright color on their backs to identify them to their owners. They pay no attention to the passing Lexus, grazing with an eternal banality. Turf fires are burning on the hills — an ancient means of rejuvenating the land, Shane explains. Illegal, but virtually impossible to police.

The road is a single lane, and in the entire hour or so that we are on it, we pull over only once or twice to allow a car coming in the opposite direction to pass. Maura explains the old Irish definition of a road: take two cows and place them adjacent to each other at a 90 degree angle; if you can fit that whole lot on whatever path you’re traveling down, then it is legally wide enough to be deemed a road. The path we’re on just barely meets this definition.

The road, paved in dark gray asphalt, winds anachronistically through the otherwise unblemished landscape. It accents the hills and irregularities of the landscape like some massive postmodern masterpiece. And above us, now, looms Corrán Tuathail the highest peak of the Mountains of East Kerry, and the highest summit in all of Ireland. Threadbare and bleak, it reigns over the landscape with all the poise and posture of an unchallenged king. The road switchbacks into the heavens, and we pass beneath the summit of The Black Stacks. Before us unfolds the the coastal plains of East Kerry.

The road leads to Killeenleagh. The road leads to provenance. The road leads to the birthplace and childhood home of my Grandmother, Noreen O’Shea McEntee. Maura narrates as we pass family landmarks: your Grandmother’s cousin worked here, your great Uncle labored here, and so on and so forth.

* * *

What is it that’s so intriguing about the birthplace and childhood home of an ancestor? What draws us to make these pilgrimages, compels us to cross oceans and traverse mountains? There’s a subtle irony in it all: they left and now we return, if only temporarily. “To find out where I came from,” one might answer, and that’s fair enough, I suppose. Certainly, it can bring clarity to our understanding of our ancestors, and that in and of itself is valuable. But is that the fundamental reason we seek out our inherited past? Perhaps. Perhaps, also, it’s a subconscious fascination with the spectrum of our mortality — not just what comes after, but what came before us. To smell the air of our ancestors and walk ponderously on their soil. To try to grasp the enormous series of events that came together to create our own lives. To find meaning in our own life through the wearisome lives of our ancestors.

* * *

Before we visit Grandma’s home, we pay a visit to Maura’s brother, Father Padraig. He’s spending the day in the house of his (and Maura’s) childhood, ostensibly clearing his mind and preparing for Holy Week. He is currently at his (and Maura’s) childhood home, in the village of Mastergeehy, a few miles down the road, past Killeenleagh. The village is a ghost town, gray and empty, seemingly abandoned for years. He greets us with the terse warmth of a deeply pensive man — quiet but disarming. He looks at me deeply, and I know he’s looking for his Aunt Noreen, and I think he knows that I’m looking for her, too.

He beckons us in, and Maura sets about preparing tea and biscuits. We sit down in a small but quaint living room. The wallpaper is light blue and garnished with a pattern of festoons. The furniture is sturdy and constructed of a dark wood — oak perhaps. The walls are adorned with old pictures and paintings and a Papal blessing for an ancestor’s marriage.

Shane O'Connor, myself, and Father Padraig Sugrue

Shane O'Connor, myself, and Father Padraig Sugrue

Father Padraig leaves the room momentarily and reappears holding a stack of photographs. They’re old, but in good condition, no doubt due to the love yielded by the hands that have held them over the generations. He hands me a photograph and asks me if I can identify the person in the picture. A young girl stares back at me. She is standing in a yard, dressed in what must be her gown reserved for Sundays and special occasions. Her features are soft, her face porcelain. But her eyes: sharp and penetrating and beautiful, just as they are to this day. It’s Grandma.

We go through dozens of photos. At first, Father Padraig identifies each person for me, but after a while he goes silent and it’s understood that I’ve been introduced to the faces of just about everyone. Photograph after photograph, and I realize how precious little I know about my maternal Grandparents’ childhood. I had never seen childhood pictures of them. And why would I? They didn’t bring pictures of themselves across the Atlantic, and there just hadn’t been any pressing reason to have copies of them on hand later in life. I reckon there must be family portraits or at least photos of parents and siblings tucked away in some sacred corner of my Grandmother’s possessions, but I can’t recall ever seeing them.

In the corner of the room is a glass case filled with photographs and trinkets. Upon closer inspection, it occurs to me that they are mementos from one of my favorite stories of my grandmother’s childhood. In it are model airplanes, one clearly made of scrap metal or debris, and pictures of a similar looking plane. It appears to be a bomber, clearly marked with German insignia. During the Battle of Britain, it crashed landed in a nearby field, and my ancestors befriended the stranded German airmen. By all accounts, they were warm, friendly young men, happy to receive the hospitality of the Irish. It’s worth noting that this was years before the atrocities of the Nazis came to light, and less than two decades after Ireland won its independence from the British — centuries of tyrannical rule at their hands were very recent memories.  I’m told, to that end, that the locals were happy to greet these men who were fighting the British.

It’s a prophetic trip, seeing Father Padraig, and I feel supremely prepared for the remainder of the day’s journey. We bid each other farewell, and depart. Back through the abandoned village to the main road that leads back to Killeenleagh stopping for a moment to take pictures of a tattered, dilapidated old schoolhouse — Grandma’s schoolhouse.

Grandma's childhood schoolhouse

The building was wretched; everything crumbling and rotting, and the whole structure seemed to slump with exhaustion.  How long it had been abandoned, I couldn’t tell. It looked as if it had been made into some sort of miniature gymnasium near the end of its life, with basketball hoops up on the walls. And I wonder, now, what sort of wisdom was imparted between these walls, what knowledge had made its way from here to my own upbringing? And the Philosopher will tell you: buildings may fall, matter may lose its form, but ideas — well, those are eternal.

Inside the schoolhouse

Inside the schoolhouse

Back up the road we go with the evening sun at our backs, dampened by a veil of clouds. The River Inny runs parallel to the road, lapping at its banks; a faithful companion. The road is empty and the ride is short. We soon pull into a gravel driveway, round a hedge, and there it is. Grandma’s home. Silent and stalwart, it stands there as it did 80 years ago. The walls are white, tarnished here and there with streaks of grime. The backyard is damp and boggy, and the masonry sheds contain small piles of turf — fuel and warmth.

We are met by Dennis O’Shea, my Grandmother’s nephew. He is the caretaker of the property, having inherited it from his father, John. The house is currently being rented out, but the tenants aren’t home, and Dennis is happy to let us in for a peak.

* * *

Here is the place of your birth, the place of your youth, the place of your upbringing. You took your first steps here and spoke your first words there. Where did you learn to act with such dignity, with such grace, with such humility? Is that where you said your first prayer, prayed your first Rosary? There was laughter here, and I know there were tears. Times were hard and there was always work to be done. But you made it, and so did your children and so will I.

* * *

I’m told that the stove in the kitchen is original, as is the fireplace. So are the stone floors. Beyond that, the furniture and decor are mostly unoriginal. The heart of the house is clearly the kitchen. A source of warmth, and sustenance, the front door originally opened directly to it (though a wall has recently been installed to help retain warmth). The rest of the house sort of spins off of the kitchen, with a parlor off to one side, and a storage room off to the other. A narrow set of stairs takes you to the second floor, where there are a few bedrooms and a bathroom.

The house is not large. It’s certainly not small, but when one considers that a family of 15 lived here — as they did all those years ago — it is unequivocally small. And I understand now: there’s nothing truly winsome about the way of life associated with this place, nothing romantic. Of course, I’d always known that it hadn’t been glamorous, but still, it had been so easy to romanticize the good-old-days of my ancestors from afar. I had developed false nostalgia for an elegant, simple way of life in the Irish countryside. It’s so easy to do. My grandparents grew up on farms in Ireland — it rolls of the tongue and sounds so quaint and charming.

But here I am, staring the beast in the face and there’s nothing pleasant about it. It was poverty. I’d heard Grandma say it before, and now I see it. In the spartan woodwork and the stone floor, in the piles of turf and the soggy ground. Life hadn’t been easy here, and we must recognize this. When we speak of our ancestors, we must acknowledge this, and then, only then, may we come to grasp at the wisps of virtue cultivated here. That hard work brings value to life, that happiness is to be found in the small things, that religion and family ought always to come first — these are the lessons to take away.

And it is with this in mind that we leave Grandma’s home. But first we stop at the bridge over the Inny on the property, and I admire the land of my ancestors. The water reflects the waning sky in mimetic approval, and in the distance I can see the big oak tree, under the shade of which rests the remains of my great uncle John. I admire the green and the blue, the rocks and the mountains, and I give thanks:  thanks to Grandma and to Grandpa and to all my ancestors, who endured and persevered and secured such a happy life for their descendants.

Spring Break, Part the First

The last two weeks constituted our spring break; a chance to venture outside of Italy and see a bit more of Ye Olde World. For many, this was an opportunity to sample as much of the local drink in as many countries as possible; for others, a chance to take a look at cities and museums that compliment their studies; for some, a jaunt into the lands of their ancestors; for all, an opportunity to drop the books and relax. For me, it was a healthy combination of all of the above.

Over the past two weeks, I jotted down thoughts and observations in my little black notebook that many of you have seen me carrying around. Some of the writing was done on site — from a dark and musty pub in County Cork to the vast, white-speckled landscape of Mykonos — and some was done after the fact. What follows, then, is a catalog of notes and pictures from my travels, broken up into a few (i.e., yet to be determined) volumes.

15 March 2oo8, Cork City, County Cork, Ireland

Beneath the tarnish and the grit of a thousand years of birth and decay is where you’ll find the charm of Éire. She doesn’t flaunt it like France or pretend to contain it like Britain; she is genuine. She lives in the churches and on the streets, down crumbling alleys and in the abundant hospitality of her people.

I met her last night when Tim and Mary Sugrue collected me from the Cork airport. They’re cousins of mine: my grandmother’s sister’s son and his wife. This is the first I’ve met them. Or at least, the first that I can recall. He’s a lean man with handsomely sharp features and well set eyes. He speaks with the rolling accent indicative of his provenance. He speaks like my Grandmother, and his personality bounces with that inner child that seems to reside in this race. Mary has a soft face and a soft demeanor, constantly expressing a genuine concern for the wellbeing of her guest. Her tea is warm and so is her hospitality.

It was nearly midnight by the time the three of us arrived at their home.

–How about a cup of tea?

I tell Mary that would be lovely.

Tim shows me to my room. I unload my things and return downstairs to find Mary busily preparing sandwiches and tea. Tim turns to me:

–Well then, will you have a drink?
I’m not sure if he means tea or alcohol.
–How about some whiskey? His eyes light up and the corners of his mouth twitch slightly.
I smile and accept enthusiastically.

He proceeds to pour me the healthiest measure of Irish whiskey I’ve ever seen. The measure with which you measure will in return be measured out unto you. We toasted to slàinte, to health, and lost ourselves in the sort of banter that befits old friends.

p1020682.jpg

16 March 2008, Cobh, County Cork, Ireland

Today I saw Cobh, the port at the mouth of the River Lee. It’s the place where, so many years ago, my grandmother bade farewell to family and friends, to turf and poverty, to green and grey, and set off across the brine for a new life in America. And how many other people did the same? Liberty called for the tired, the hungry, the poor, and Ireland obliged. How many?

There is a cathedral in Cobh that sits prominently above the harbor. Grandma is my age. She boards the ship, loaded with anxiety and a piece or two of luggage. The ship’s horn bellows and it sets off. She turns to look at that massive structure. Would she return? Would she ever again see her parents alive? All she can see is the tip of the spire, now; the horizon consumes her home. Would God be with her in America?

(Image taken from here.)

Assisi & Venice

Assisi and Venice: two of the most visually stimulating places I’ve ever been. Go to Paris and you see the Louvre. London, and it’s the Tower. Flourence: the Duomo. But go to Assisi and Venice, and you don’t really need to go see anything in particular. I mean, yes, Assisi, the home of St. Francis, has the Franciscan monestary, and Venice has the Accademia — both wonderful places to invest time.  But as you reflect on your journey, what you’ll remember most is the abundant feast your eyes were treated to. In short, you go to Assisi and Venice to see.
Assisi
p1020280.jpg
p1020281-1.jpg
p1020290.jpg

p1020279-1.jpg
p1020304-1.jpg
p1020272.jpg
Venice
p1020564-1.jpg
p1020613-1.jpg
p1020437-1.jpg
p1020409-1.jpg
p1020422-1.jpg
n8703593_31106325_5825.jpg
Special thanks to Lizzie T. for this one.

Firenze

p1010883.jpg

The weekend before last was spent a short train ride north of Rome in the Tuscan city of Florence. It’s a quaint city with a medieval charm; thick towers and heavy ramparts, rickety shops and narrow streets. It’s Firenze. The city of Dante, the Duomo, and the David.

Many Davids, actually, the most notable being those sculpted by Donatello and Michaelangelo. These sculptures, particularly the latter, are in an artistic league of their own. Like the Mona Lisa and La Pieta, they’re the sorts of things that you just know about. You’re not really sure when or where you first heard of them, let alone what’s so special about them, but you know they’re important. You know they’re good. So good that they’ve been bastardized countless times by kitschy replicas and gimmicky souvenirs. So good that, in spite of the fact that you walk into the museum knowing you’re about to see something magnificent, you leave with a loss for words, relying on trite accolades like “awesome” and “amazing.”

p1010963.jpg

My visit to the “Casa di Dante” was a bit of a disappointment. It’s a museum dedicated to the great Italian poet, located in what may or may not have been his house. I had read that a few early manuscripts of The Divine Comedy — probably my favorite piece of literature — were on display there, but, alas, nothing. Instead, the casa essentially amounted to a history lesson on Florence in the time of Dante; interesting, no doubt, but I could have gotten more or less the same experience on Wikipedia.

There was, however, one particularly memorable Dante-related experience that came from this. As it turns out, the remains of Beatrice Portinari are interred in a small church just down the street. For the Dante fans among us, you’ll understand the specialness of being able to visit her grave. For those unfamiliar, it’s hard to put into words what Beatrice was for Dante, and to do so is to run the risk of tainting the perfection with which the poet characterized her. Many will be quick to say that she was his “muse;” and she certainly was, but she was also so much more. Suffice to say, Dante was captivated by this beautiful Florentine, and when she died an untimely death Beatrice became for him the embodiment of the most virtuous, spiritual love. Indeed, it is Beatrice that intercedes for Dante in the Comedy, guiding him through Paradise and setting him back upon the straight path. It is Beatrice that Dante appealed to, through his poetry, when he “awoke in a dark wood” after being expelled from Florence. Thus, in a very real sense, Beatrice unites Dante, his poetry, and the city that, despite its rejection of him, he never stopped loving.

p1010863.jpg

And then there’s the Duomo. First, let’s set the record straight: Duomo does not mean dome. It’s derived from the Latin domus Dei, “House of God.” Thus, it’s a church. Any church is a Duomo, though it tends to be reserved for Italian Cathedrals. Incidentally, the Duomo of Florence does have a massive (and architecturally innovative) dome on top of it, and for six euro, you can climb to the summit.

Emphasis on climb. I believe it was something like 463 steps to the top, up seemingly endless spiral staircases and through cramped passageways. These are, mind you, the original passageways used during the construction of the dome in the early 15th century. And when you reach the top…

p1010951.jpg

p1010947.jpg

…it’s worth it. Very worth it.

Il papa!

 p1010725.jpg

This afternoon, the Pope gave Ash Wednesday mass at the Church of Santa Sabina. It’s a 5th century building which, incidentally, is a just up the street from where I’m living. So I wondered on over there around 4:25 to see if I could catch a glimpse of Benedict XVI as he arrived for the 4:30 ceremony. There was some sort of JumboTron set up outside the church — a weird fusion of 21th century and late Roman architecture — which would be simulcasting the event, and I was perfectly content to settle down in one of the chairs and lose myself in spiritual glow of the TV. A bit of consolation for those of us that hadn’t obtained tickets to enter the church.

But right as I was making myself comfortable, a couple of other students on the same program as me came down the aisle at a brisk pace. “We’re going to try to get inside, come with us.”

Er, okay.

There was some semblance of a line forming, with most of the people wielding these blue slips of paper which I could only assume were tickets. The line passed through a security checkpoint, under the watchful supervision of the Swiss Guard. Feeling a bit cavalier, I decided to just stay in the line. What’s the worst that could happen: I get turned back at the door? Then I’d just be in the same position I was in before. A zero-sum game of sorts.

p1010851.jpg

To my surprise, I had absolutely no problems getting in. There I stood, in this monumental fifth century church. The chanting starts. The massive doors open and the procession of the clergy begins. First are dozens of priests, clearly from all corners of the world, clad in black and white. Then the bishops, in their purple regalia. The excitement in the atmosphere was barometric as this crescendo of color reached its climax. Red. Cardinals.

And then came the purple and gold. The Pope. He smiled and silently blessed as he proceeded to the altar, immune to the flashing cameras.

p1010854.jpg

The mass lasted about an hour and a half. I couldn’t tell you what the homily was about, as it was all in Italian, but that didn’t bother me. Truly, it would have been awesome to be able to understand what the Pope was saying, if only to commune with such a brilliant philosophical mind. But no matter; I was swept up in the moment, absorbed by the experience. Ashes were given, then the Eucharist. All was well.

The mass ended, and the clergy made their way back up the aisle, smiling and shaking hands with the enthusiastic laity. I hung around a while, silently observing, before exiting the church. The experience was visceral. Clergy, everywhere. Priests, bishops, cardinals – not being whisked away, on the other side of some barrier, but right there, amongst the people. Where they should be; where they need to be.

And with that, I meandered on home through the Roman night, taking the long route, reflecting on all that had passed, finding solace in the notion that my stay in Rome has just begun.

Beneath a City

img_1123.jpg

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.

img_1124.jpg

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.)