Even with Kay’s arm in a cast it was a pleasure for us to be in the Eternal City four days last month and to find it every bit as beautiful and exciting as it was the last time we were there in 2002. Certainly, our pleasure was enhanced by being able to share it with our nieces, Amy and Sarah, the daughters of my late brother Chris and his wife Linda.
We hadn’t seen much of the two sisters while they were growing up. While their mother was raising them in a Chicago suburb, Kay and I were working and living in New York, and so, regretfully, we hadn’t gotten to know them very well during their childhood years. Now, they’re grown and become two lovely and independent-minded women. Amy, 28 years old, had recently moved to Rome to be near her boyfriend, Roland, a commercial pilot based there. Sarah at 25 has just completed her nurse’s training and passed her licensing exam in Illinois. As a reward for her achievement, she gave herself a Roman holiday with a visit to her sister.
So the timing of our trip couldn’t have been better. How could we have passed up this opportunity to spend time with family in a Roman setting? So far, Amy and Sarah are the first in my family to spend time in Europe. I had my own international baptism at the age of 20 when I went to live for a year as a student in France. Kay had hers at an even younger age as an exchange student in Uruguay. Because we both understand how time spent outside one’s own country widens one’s understanding and appreciation of life’s pleasures, it was very exciting to witness Amy and Sarah’s excitement, discovering the cosmopolitan joys of Italian life and culture.
Our hours together were celebratory. The four of us dined out on delicious cuisine, explored the streets around the Pantheon, and became enchanted with the beauty of the Borghese Gardens and the Villa with its exquisite pieces of antique and Renaissance art.
One evening we joined Amy, Sarah, and Roland at the apartment that he and Amy share in a quiet residential neighborhood on the periphery of the city. We passed the time beautifully. Sarah expressed her passion for nursing. Amy and Roland were easy and comfortable together. We chatted, noshed, and then took photos to commemorate the occasion.
On our own, Kay and I used our remaining few hours in the best ways possible. We caught a big break with the weather. We had expected it to be inclement, but lo and behold, the rain fell only at night. Our days were pleasantly cool, and we had more sunshine that we had been led to expect. Thankfully, weather forecasting is not an exact science.
I had first visited Rome more than 45 years ago and have some wonderful, faded memories of that visit. At the time, not long after the appearance of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, tourism had a long way to go to reach the mass phenomenon that it has become today. I don’t remember crowds when I first visited the Sistine Chapel. Since then Michelangelo’s frescoed masterpiece has become one of the world’s premier tourist destinations and crowd control is a major preoccupation of the guards trying to enforce the rules of silence and no photography. On the happier side, the chapel was cleaned and restored in the 1980s and the art positively shines.
Exiting the chapel, our necks sore from craning them upwards, we wandered without a plan through only a small part of the vast collections that make up the complex of the Vatican Museums. To contemplate the extent and priceless value of the art therein was to imagine the splendor and magnificence of the Roman Catholic Church during its centuries of power.
I’ll mention just one other interesting visit, this one to the Ars Pacis Augustae or “Altar of Augustan Peace”, an extraordinary triumphal monument commemorating an important military victory during the reign of the great Caesar Augustus. In form the Ars Pacis is a large marble oblong, whose long sides are decorated with dozens of full length figures carved in relief, representing Augustus with his wife, Livia, and his extensive family together with important priests and generals. These are portrayed in relaxed attitudes in a kind of procession. Tiberius, Claudius, Marcus Agrippa . . . many figures have been identified on an adjacent model of the monument. Great pains were taken to research and reconstruct this monument from remains, some buried and some dispersed at other locations in Rome and abroad.
It is an American architect, Richard Meier, who designed the splendid, modern museum setting for the Ars Pacis. Great walls of windows bathe the monument in indirect light while giving impressive views of the river embankment on one side and the mausoleum of Augustus on the other.
Like some of you, Kay and I are impressed with the realism and drama in the paintings of Michelangelo Merisi, known as Caravaggio, who lived and worked at the end of the 16th century and the beginning of the 17th. In our travels we tend to seek out his paintings in the churches and museums where they are displayed.
In Rome there are two in the church of Santa Maria del Popolo, where, as we were waiting for a Sunday Mass to end, I gazed up at a large funeral monument with its Latin inscription. I’ve looked uncomprehendingly at the solemn formality of these inscriptions over the years, but this time I got an insight that had never occurred to me before. Not only was Latin the language of the Church, it was a language that every educated person of the day could read and understand. To be an educated European in the 17th and 18th centuries was to know Latin and to perhaps a lesser extent, Greek. Educated elites in Italy, France, Germany, Spain, and England shared a lingua franca and a common background, one based on having read and studied the same group of ancient texts. I don’t know why, but when I think of today’s polyglot world, this fact strikes me as important as it is unusual.