Travels in Italy, Part 3: Rome

In Which our Intrepid Traveler Finishes Recounting His Adventures in Italy, Passing Judgment on All He Has Seen There.

When in Rome, the temptation to make “when in Rome” jokes is overwhelming. At least for the first five minutes. Fortunately, once you’ve gotten that out of your system, Rome has countless ways to keep your two-bit sense of humor subordinated to your sense of wonder. In fact, the whole city is like an Abbeville book come to life, from the Vatican and Sistine Chapel to the lavish chiese on every corner (apparently Baroque cathedrals in Rome are like Duane Reades in New York) to the wine, wine, and more wine served at every osteria. If I had seen a cat up close I would have thought Abbeville had somehow sponsored the place.

Amidst such a profusion of style, it’s hard to identify the best of the best, but that’s not going to stop me from trying. Herewith, my favorite aspects of Rome and some comments on each:

The Vatican Museum/St. Peter’s Basilica/Sistine Chapel. Splendid as advertised. Seeing The School of Athens and the other masterpieces of the Stanze di Raffaello in real life gives you an especially strange cognitive frisson because they’re painted right there on the wall. Somehow that makes their brilliance seem so casual: the man had a wall to paint, and instead of choosing something simple and understated, say, robin’s egg blue with beige trim, he went with….The School of Athens. I can only hope to be this ambitious someday. The most endearing feature of the Vatican Museum is its collection of modern art: it seems that in the 1970s the church was forced to admit that art had, in fact, continued to exist for the past 300 years. To their credit, they’ve included works by some of the great bad-boy Catholics of the previous century, including Dalí and Francis Bacon—although not, it must be said, anything from Bacon’s “Screaming Pope” series. As for the Sistine Chapel, it contains the most thrilling aesthetic experience Rome has to offer: the chance to see, in its original form, the header image of the Abbeville Manual of Style.

The Pantheon. I found The Pantheon not only awe-inspiring but also kind of lovable. While we were there, my traveling buddy Phil pointed out how odd it still seems that the symbolism and icononography of Christianity were grafted onto those of classical myth, since the two religions really aren’t all that compatible. But the story of that awkward grafting is in many ways the story of Western art, and nowhere is it embodied more perfectly than in the Pantheon, the great pagan temple that has served as a Christian church for the past 1300 years. By combining the pomp and circumstance of classical architecture with the outsized drama of Catholic sculpture, the Pantheon finds what the two traditions have in common—basically, a lot of marble—and makes the combination work. Then there’s the famous oculus, the “eye of heaven” or huge round opening in the center of the dome. This feature, to me, sums up the gap between pagan worship and the more buttoned-down style of most modern religions. You try something like that in church architecture nowadays and someone’s going to say:

“Looks like there’s a hole in that roof.”

“Yep.”

“We better get someone to fix that.”

“Yeah, we probably should.”

Not those pagan Romans: they were open to whatever the gods sent down through the hole, be it rain, sleet, thunderbolts, or Mercury with wingèd sandals. I have to admire that kind of impracticality (and the very practical drainage system they built to accommodate it), even though I was glad we visited the Pantheon on a sunny day. Bonus: on a sunny day you get to stand under a column of brilliant light and feel like you’re the gods’ favorite, just as you always suspected.

Fontana di Trevi. The Roman fountain par excellence. Marble! Horses! Jets of water! Neptune looking like he has a giant chip on his shoulder! Also a wealth of good gelato places in the neighborhood.

The Spanish Steps and Keats/Shelley Museum. The Spanish Steps are very stately, very picturesque, but unfortunately, very upstaged by John Keats’ having died next door. The Museum was well worth the visit and the great man’s death chamber every bit as eerie as I expected—not least because of the plaster death mask cast from his face during the last phase of his illness. Sadly, since the Protestant Cemetery is on the outskirts of town, I didn’t get to see Keats’ actual gravestone (Wilde: “The holiest place in Rome”) with its poignant inscription, “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.” If only he could have assured himself of immortality by publishing with Abbeville.

The beautiful Italian woman riding by on a bicycle, wearing huge sunglasses and smoking a cigarette. An essential part of the Italian experience.

Overall, Rome can be summed up by the single word “splendor.” When I made this pronouncement in St. Peter’s Basilica, Phil said, “Yeah, it’s weird to think that this is the farthest our civilization will ever come in that regard—and that we peaked several centuries ago.” The best we’ve done lately? The Manhattan skyline, some might argue, or the lavish pleasure palaces of Dubai—or else, and we’re just putting this out there, the monumental books that keep rolling each season off Abbeville Press.

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