Archive for the 'The Church' Category

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.)

Yes, Virginia, it does rain inside the Pantheon.

p1010840.jpg

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.

p1010843.jpg

La città di Dio.

Roma è la città di Dio. Rome is the City of God. And it’s true; mind, body and soul, through and though, it’s a holy city. I might go so far as to argue that the entire città is, in fact, material proof of an omnipotent higher intelligence. To what else can we attribute the inspiration for some of the most breathtaking art and architecture the human race has created than the divine? To what else can we attribute the eternalness of the Eternal City than pure Providence? To what else can we attribute to creation of desperately attractive Italian women than a loving God? Yes my friends, Rome is la città di Dio.

It’s fitting, then, that home for the next few months is a convent. The shot above is looking northwest down the Clivo dei Pubicii (incidentally, the oldest paved road in Rome; bear in mind, here, the Roman definition of “old”). The structure on the left is the main entrance to the convent, which sits on three or four acres of primo Roman real estate (Roberto Benigni, for example, lives in the neighborhood). The nuns are friendly, but contact with them is rather minimal. Most of those three or four acres are cloistered, with access being restricted to the Sisters and their guests, and this seems to be where they spend most of their time.

The accommodations are modest but functional. I’m on the ground floor, and my window faces a wall. It’s a very nice wall, though, a Roman wall, sturdy and well built. Off to the left (out of view in this picture) is a small bathroom/shower. I say bathroom/shower because that’s what it is. It’s a bathroom. And it’s also a shower. It’s a bathroom/shower. There’s a faucet sticking out of the wall and a drain in the middle of the floor. It’s a bathroom/shower. European efficiency.

A couple of lucky people on the third floor have this view. Yes, those are the ruins of the Imperial Palace on the Palatine Hill off in the distance. Not bad.

Every home has its idiosyncrasies, and the convent — not to mention Rome in general — is no different. The bathroom/shower is certainly a major one, and I’m slowly learning how to not flood my room every time I bathe. The walls are paper thin, and the floors are tiled, so every time a group of high-heeled girls walks down the hall on their way in or out for the night, it sounds like a Red Army military parade. Breakfast every morning is coffee, biscuits (endearingly referred to as “nun buns”) and jam. I wouldn’t mind something a bit more hardy, but the lunches have, thus far, been large and delicious, easily making up for the spartan breakfasts.

A three minute walk up the road, and you’re at the Church of Santa Sabina. It was built in the fifth century and, from what I understand, it has been maintained to reflect its original style. The Pope gave Ash Wednesday mass here last year, and I think he’s scheduled to do the same in a week and a half.

The view from the park/former medieval fortress adjacent to the church isn’t bad, either.

Let me close with a short anecdote. Yesterday, while out for a walk, I was stopped by an Italian woman in her car and asked for directions. At least, I think that’s what she was asking me. She was quick to read my befuddled expression, smiled, nodded, and drove off. Thus I was left, feeling a bit guilty that I wasn’t able to help out, but rather proud that I apparently don’t completely wreak of turistico americano.