Monday, December 15

Battle of the Virtues

Which virtue will win?

OK, so I've been having a conversation lately with some friends about what virtues are most important (excepting the obvious Faith,Hope,& Charity). I'm personally rooting for obedience. "Never is the will of God more perfectly fulfilled than when we obey our superiors." - St. Vincent de Paul.

Among other possible virtues in the running...
Poverty, Chastity, Meekness, Humility, Mortification, Recollection, Self-denial...

For those interested in good liturgy.............

......Check out the Recent Events section of the Dominican Students Webpage. Seriously: these guys seem to have awesome Solemn Vespers about as often as Newsday publishes hitpieces on the Church. Especially worth checking out are the programs for some of the liturgies, with their (often) Latin Mass settings and "original" words to some great tunes like "For All Thy Saints in Warfare." (Coming soon: special new verse: All praise to thee Saint Flutius, Thou hail'd from Bologna........"). These Dominicans are worth checking out for so many reasons, as I noted in my short post about my August retreat with them.
Interesting commentary from the Old Oligarch about artistic expression of the Virgin, the Church and Magisterial infallibility (a.k.a., "why is Mary wearing a stole"?). It also explains that curious allegorical stole-wearing image I saw representing Adoration at the Sacrament Altar at Santi Ambrogio e Carlo back in Rome, as well as the interesting stained-glass image of the virtue of Faith back at Notre Dame wearing full Papal regalia--I have a pet theory that the misinterpretation of some sort of image like that might have accidentally gotten the Pope Joan myth rolling, but some more on that later. Good going, O.O.

Screwing Up in Rome

So, I find myself at home again, enjoying a quiet day by myself. In the kitchen, fixing some pop tarts. The sun’s just starting to come out in the back yard, filtering through the thick woods and backlighting the patchwork of mandarin-yellow leaves peeping through the evergreen pines and the huge laminated magnolia fronds with their little white sparks of reflection. Long grey-purple frosty morning shadows on the grass. Like tiger stripes.

North Florida at ten AM. I’d never noticed how beautiful it was.

Breakfast, and the paper, with the delightful mug-shots of a woolly-looking and very captured Saddam Hussein to further cheer me up. And then there’s those pop tarts. After a steady diet of these for breakfast, you find them repulsive—redolent of cardboard and artificial chocolate, especially if you eat them cold straight out of the foil packet while trying to figure out if you’re going to be late to your summer job. Today, they don’t seem so bad, though I’m a bit mystified as to how imitation cacao ever became a breakfast food.

Do I miss Rome? I can’t say. It’s there in the back of my mind, half-ignored, half-remembered like the still-packed luggage lying in the stair hall. They’d lost the big suitcase at JFK, turning up only yesterday. I’ve yet to check it but I hope the Christmas cake I’d bought the night before I left at the Camilloni bar at Sant’ Eustachio is still both intacta and fresh.

There are certainly enough things I’d wished I’d gotten at least a glimpse of before I’d left; the crèche at Santa Maria in Aracoeli, with the miraculous Bambino; the church of Santi Apostoli; and maybe another strategic dose of gnocchi ai quattro formaggi. But somehow, I don’t regret it: I’ll be back again next semester, a little older, a little wiser, and perhaps without the head-cold that’s bothering me somewhat at the moment.

It’d been most frustrating the last full weekend I’d been in Rome. I had grand plans. Due dates and projects were simply not going to get in the way of one last crack at the Eternal City. It’d started out auspiciously enough with my visit to Piazza Navona to browse through all those Befama-kitsch stockings and knockoff Nativity scenes, but then at noon he blue sky turned an ominous dirty grey and it started raining. So much for museum-going or another stroll down the Corso. We spent the day in and soaked our minds in a showing of the extended DVD of The Two Towers in the empty Aula.

The rain is the worst thing about winter in Rome. It’s not heavy—not always, at least. Simply ubiquitous, and unpredictable at the same time. The additional risk of being occasionally salted by hailstone chips doesn’t add to the allure. On the other hand, there’s also fog sometimes, which is somewhat fun. It doesn’t get much weirder when you wake up early one morning to take advantage of the free admission to the Vatican Museums last Sunday of the month and find that Michelangelo’s dome has vanished under a bizarre canopy of low-lying cloud.

Sunday wasn’t much better. Our group visit to the catacombs of Santa Priscilla—as well as our meeting with the legendarily hilarious archaeologist-nun Sister Marta—had gone belly-up because of the idiosyncrasies of the Italian bus system, and by the time the dust had settled, it was too late to hit San Gregorio for one last Tridentine hurrah before I left. An increasingly dismal sky put a damper on any further explorations of the city.

I had to face it. I’d screwed up. In Rome. All those “I’ll wait until I have a weekend free,” “I’ll wait until the project’s done”—all those had been wasted.

Still, by sunset, the rain had let up. As I headed towards the Vatican, I saw streaks of golden evening parting the thick canopy of blue-purple clouds. It was magnificent. The Christmas crèche in front of the Basilica was still hidden behind plastic hoardings, but inside, the vast nave was crowded with throngs of strolling pilgrims. Japanese tourists took the inevitable snapshot standing by the enormous cherubs by the holy water font. The oil lamps of the confessio blazed with subtle pinpricks of flame.

The red light on the English-language confessional was out, and the crochety OFM Conv. who, atop a big red-checked cushion, is perpetually there was nowhere to be seen. I decided my more-or-less weekly confession wasn’t so urgent as to necessitate using the only other venue available, a Portuguese polyglot who spoke Italian, Spanish and maybe French better than English—the last language and the smallest type on his little framed sign. Plus, the confessionals there are probably the most uncomfortable in the city. Had I screwed up again? Oh well.

So I turned and strolled through the polychrome marble caverns and paused to listen to the choir intone Conditor Alme Siderium as Vespers began. Three priests draped in purple and gold copes officiated beneath the great bronze Chair of Peter, while ranks of purple bishops stood in the choirstalls.

There’s something about visiting a great illuminated church at night, the way the voluminous glow of the lights pushes back the darkness of the opaque windows, the unfamiliar reversal of daylight and lamplight, night and interior dark. Unlike the oratorical, almost operatic gloom of the Chiesa Nuova at twilight or the Byzantine mingling of lamps and darkness at San Attanasio, it was an artificial noon here, Bernini’s architecture splendid in all its electrified glory.

I lingered briefly on the edge of the crowd, and decided not to stay for the rest of the service. It was growing dark far too quickly, and the Borgo was strange at night. My first evening in Rome, I’d walked across town to have a glimpse of the stars over the dome only to confront the echo of vespers or mass going on inside, amplified into the sinisterly empty, dark square by enormous outdoor speakers. The streetlights atop their suppository obelisks were dark, and teenagers were lighting rows of terra-cotta oil lamps along the street for reasons that were never explained to me.

However, this time, this one last time, the street was glowing with orange lamps. Above, the moon was breaking forth with Gothick theatrical panache from a purple billowing sky above the floodlit archangel of Castel Sant’ Angelo.

Despite a missing confessor and rain, it seemed like things were starting to look up for my last weekend in Rome.

I spent a half-hour on the way back in the genteel red-velvet-walled rooms of the little Museo Napoleonico south of the massive Palace of Justice, looking at dozens of busts and paintings of Bonapartist figures I knew, I thought I knew, or had no clue who they were.

Not bad, though there was an acute shortage of uniforms, drums, muskets and the sort of things one likes to see at Napoleonic museums. On the other hand, there was the lovely smiling and slightly careworn bust of Letizia Bonaparte, Nappy’s mother, and probably the one with the most brains in the family. And, even better, was the gorgeous gauzy Winterhaltur portrait of Napoleon III’s missus, Empress Eugènie, the former Spanish Countess of Montijo. If I had ever met her face-to-face, I’d have been reduced to a puddle of infatuated romantic mush within two minutes.

And who can blame me? After all, I’m told she was quite the Catholic. I backtracked twice to gaze at it, and would have done it a third time if the docent hadn’t pointed me back out into the lobby. Afterwards, I bought a postcard of the Empress and headed back towards studio to get ready for evening mass.

I thought the adventure was over, but it got even better. I managed to get lost.

You’re never really lost lost in Rome; it’s simply a matter of figuring out which direction to hit and just striking out for it through a maze of back-alleys. Street-names, foreign, complicated and often on hopelessly obscure little signs, are of no help. After a while, you get the hang of navigation and pick up a few familiar beacons to orient yourself.

A bicycle hanging above eye level from the sort of metal sign you associate with No Parking heralded my descent into Wonderland. Lights were strung overhead, blazing merrily above the Via dei Coronari, crowded with the hum of Christmas cheer. They say it’s named after the rosary-sellers that used to congregate along the narrow street, and now it’s lined with dozens of antique shops, their well-lit front windows filled with great trophies of gilt and ormolou.

So I strolled along, watching the café windows fill up in the chill purple evening, pressing my nose up to the glass of a closed militaria shop to note the toy soldiers as well as the display of a suit of heraldic livery for the footman for some Roman noble. Inside, a bald and corpulent man was sitting at a desk in the back and busying himself with a ledger. He seemed to have no interest in doing business. I noted the hours (closed Mondays, so much for tomorrow), though I never had a chance to get back there.

And then, turning the wrong way at the wrong corner I stumbled upon Piazza Navona completely unexpectedly. It was now a riot of colored lights, crowds, carousel-going children, mimes on pedestals and dozens of garishly gleaming stands selling the usual assortment of Nativity scenes as well as some new ones I’d missed the other morning, including hat-sellers, artists and much, much more. It was even more glorious and wacky and Italian by night—and so it should be.

I’d come full circle, back where the weekend had begun so hopefully under a pleasant blue sky. And, walking back to studio as I began to mentally compose this essay, I had to admit I had done pretty well for a screwed-up weekend.
Gimli Raises the Axe for Western Civilization

"“There is a change happening in the very complexion of Western civilization in Europe that we should think about at least and argue about. If it just means the replacement of one genetic stock with another genetic stock, that doesn’t matter too much. But if it involves the replacement of Western civilization with a different civilization with different cultural values, then it is something we really ought to discuss — because (hang it all) I am for dead-white-male culture!”"
2 days!

"And so it was that Gwaihir saw them with his keen far-seeing eyes, as down the wild wind he came, and daring the great peril of the skies he circled in the air: two small dark figures, forlorn, hand in hand upon a little hill, while the world shook under them, and gasped, and rivers of fire drew near. And even as he espied them and and came swooping down, he saw them fall, worn out, or choked with fumes and heat, or stricken down by despair at last, hiding their eyes from death.

Side by side they lay; and down swept Gwaihir, and down came Landroval and Meneldor the swift; and in a dream, not knowing what had befallen them, the wanderers were lifted up and borne far away out of the darkness and the fire.


When Sam awoke, he found that he was lying on some soft bed, but over him gently swayed wide beechen boughs, and through their young leaves sunlight glimmered, green and gold. All the air was full of a sweet mingled scent.

He remembered that smell: The fragrance of Ithilien. 'Bless me!' he mused. 'How long have I been asleep?' For the scent had borne him back to the day when he had lit his little fire under the sunny bank; and for the moment all else between was out of waking memory.

                       ~Lord of the Rings, Book VI, Chapter 4

Sunday, December 14

A Papal Gem for Gaudete Sunday:

"An unmistakable characteristic of Christian joy is that it can coexist with suffering, because it is totally based on love. In fact, the Lord who 'is at hand,' to the point of becoming man, comes to infuse in us his joy, the joy of loving. Only in this way can one understand the serene joy of the martyrs even in the midst of trials, or the smile of charity of the saints before those who are suffering: a smile that does not offend but consoles."
                ~John Paul II, Dec. 14, 2003
Dark Tower of Mordor.........or Lutheran Church?

So I was doing a little research into my Danish heritage, specifically the churches of Copenhagen, and I found this. Amazingly enough, the Inside is actually quite attractive, including this nicely done modernist altar rail. All in all, a fascinating building.
"Ladies and gentlemen, we got him."
Dave Barry asks, "Why can't they just lose that ring in the sink?"

FRODO: Darn! I still have this darned ring that I got in the first movie!

SAMWISE: The ring with the terrible power that causes everyone who comes near it to overact?

FRODO: Yes! And to destroy it, we must walk, slowly, in real time, all the way across New Zealand!

SAMWISE: But who will guide us?

FRODO: How about a reptilian computer-generated creature with a bad comb-over?

SAMWISE: Dick Cheney's in this movie?

The Shrine of the Holy Whapping Tolkien Quote Marathon TM continues

Saruman looked round at their hostile faces and smiled. 'Kill him!' he mocked. 'Kill him, if you think there are enough of you, my brave hobbits!' He drew himself up and stared at them darkly with his black eyes. 'But do not think that when I lost all my goods I lost all my power! Whoever strikes me shall be accursed. And if my blood stains the Shire, it shall wither and never again be healed.'

The Hobbits recoiled. But Frodo said: 'Do not believe him! He has lost all power, save his voice that can still daunt you and deceive you, if you let it. But I will not have him slain. It is useless to meet revenge with revenge: it will heal nothing. Go, Saruman, by the speediest way!' ...

Saruman turned to go, and Wormtongue shuffled after him. But even as Saruman passed close to Frodo a knife flashed in his hand, and he stabbed swiftly. The blade turned on the hidden mail-coat and snapped. A dozen hobbits, led by Sam, leapt forward with a cry and flung the villan to the ground. Sam drew his sword.

'No, Sam!' said Frodo. 'Do not kill him even now. For he has not hurt me. And in any case I do not wish him to be slain in this evil mood. He was great once, of a noble kind that we should not dare to raise our hands against. He is fallen, and his cure is beyond us; but I would still spare him, in the hope that he may find it.'

Saruman rose to his feet, and stared at Frodo. There was a strange look in his eyes of mingled wonder and respect and hatred. 'You have grown, Halfling,' he said. 'Yes, you have grown very much. You are wise, and cruel. You have robbed my revenge of sweetness, and now I must go hence in bitterness, in debt of your mercy. I hate it and you! Well, I go and I will trouble you no more. But do not expect me to wish you health and long life. You will have neither. But that is not my doing. I merely foretell.'

He walked away, and the hobbits made a lane for him to pass; but
their knuckles whitened as they gripped on their weapons.

                     ~Lord of the Rings, Book VI, Chapter 8

Saturday, December 13

A bit of distraction for everyone working on finals

Tolkien Scholar

What Type of Tolkien Fan are You?
brought to you by Quizilla Abuse cases disclosed by bishop

It's nice to know that there are bishops out there who aren't afraid to say things like this:

"In this diocese ... the amount of pedophilia is small. ... Most of this is against teenage boys, and that's homosexuality"

and in our very own diocese here at ND.

Thanks also to Chris for pointing out the giant Guadalupe picture in the background at the press conference. OLG, Patroness of the Americas, pray for us! (alot!)
Maybe it's just the business major in me...

... but I thought this was really funny.

After all, what college student wouldn't want a free Tibet?
Reveling in the sheer joy of Tolkien's prose...

"'Then, Éowyn of Rohan, I say to you that you are beautiful. In the valleys of our hills there are flowers fair and bright, and maidens fairer still; but neither flower nor lady have I seen till now in Gondor so lovely, and so sorrowful. It may be that only a few days are left ere darkness falls upon our world, and when it comes I hope to face it steadily; but it would ease my heart, if while the Sun yet shines, I could see you still. For you and I have both passed under the wings of the Shadow, and the same hand drew us back.'

'Alas, not me, lord!' she said. 'Shadow lies on me still. Look not to me for healing! I am a shieldmaiden and my hand is ungentle. But I thank you for this at least, that I need not keep to my chamber. I will walk abroad by the grace of the Steward of the City.' And she did him a courtesy and walked back to the house. But Faramir for a long while walked alone in the garden, and his glance now strayed rather to the house than to the eastward walls."

Friday, December 12

Home For the Holidays

It seems inevitable that I use a familiar song title for my post about leaving. It's almost traditional now; I don't know how many friends of mine have sent me emails with titles like "Leaving on a Jet Plane" over the years when they went off to college (who wrote that one, anyway?). So, as of eight in the A.M. tomorrow, I'll be no longer a cittadino of Rome, at least for one long relaxing holiday month. And then back into the hurlyburly of Italy, refreshed and excited for a second chance. These last few weeks have been a festival of stress, so I look forward to my return in January with a fresh perspective and a clean slate.

It's both exciting and slightly daunting: what will I do with all that time? Tallahassee, Florida, isn't known for having quite as many cultural amenities as, say, Rome, or probably even Orvieto, but it is, thanks be to God, home. What will I do? Very little, and I'm grateful for that. At least I hope so.

There will be some blogging, for sure. I won't abandon youall, not now. I've still got some remarks on what I did my last weekend in Rome and my little adventure seeing the Pope celebrate the feast of the Immaculate Conception (or at least a glimpse of a white-clad arm, a zucchetto and the flailing bodies bunch of hyperactive nonna-aged groupies). And maybe a word or two on our arkie Christmas celebrations, a remarkable mixture of pig-out and feverish last-minute drafting. And, lastly, God willing, maybe even our very own Holy Whapping Holiday Special: Christmas in Florida.

That being said, pray for me and pray for my family. I just need to remember it's almost over. The problem is, I'm stuck presenting my project last, and the review is scheduled for being over at six in the evening, which means, I'll probably be here until nine. Offer it up, Matt, offer it up.

T-minus 5 days and counting...

"But marred and dishonoured as they were, it often chanced that thus a man would see again the face of someone that he had known, who had walked proudly once in arms, or tilled the fields, or ridden in upon a holiday from the green vales in the hills.

In vain men shook their fists at the pitiless foes that swarmed before the Gate. Curses they heeded not, nor understood the tongues of western men, crying with harsh voices like beasts and carrion-birds. But soon there were few left in Minas Tirith who had the heart to stand up and defy the hosts of Mordor. For yet another weapon, swifter than hunger, the Lord of the Dark Tower had: dread and despair."
                   ~Lord of the Rings, Book V, Chapter 4

Thursday, December 11

T-minus 6 days and counting!

"Even as Pippin gazed in wonder the walls passed from looming grey to white, blushing faintly in the dawn; and suddenly the sun climbed over the eastern shadow and sent forth a shaft that smote the face of the City. Then Pippin cried aloud, for the Tower of Ecthelion, standing high within the topmost wall, shone out against the sky, glimmering like a spike of pearl and silver, tall and fair and shapely, and its pinnacle glittered as if it were wrought of crystals; and white banners broke and fluttered from the battlements in the morning breeze, and high and far he heard a clear ringing as of silver trumpets."
                    ~Lord of the Rings, Book V, Chapter 1

Wednesday, December 10

Return of the King quote of the day:

For the last week before Return of the King comes to theatres, I have decided to run particularly good snatches of Tolkien's prose (and poetry!) by way of a countdown.
So, without further ado, T-minus 1 week and counting:

"So passed the sword of the Barrow-downs, work of Westernesse. But glad would he have been to know its fate who wrought it slowly long ago in the North-kingdom when the Dúnedain were young, and chief among their foes was the dread realm of Angmar and its sorcerer king. No other blade, not though mightier hands had wielded it, would have dealt that foe a wound so bitter, cleaving the undead flesh, breaking the spell that knit his unseen sinews to his will."

           ~Lord of the Rings, Book V, Chapter 6
Good things on the horizon!!

John Paul II Urges Examination of Conscience on Liturgical Reform

"In a society that lives ever more frenetically, often deafened by noise and distracted by the ephemeral, it is vital to rediscover the value of silence," [JPII] says.

In a word, the Pope says that "the pedagogy of the Church must 'dare' to present lofty objectives as, for example, the celebration of the Liturgy of the Hours."

Tuesday, December 9

The La Sapienza Wine Bar, and a Visit to Piazza Navona

I’ve spoken often about the street life of Italy, the one country in the world that seems like a twenty-four-hour open-air comic opera. However, the other day I saw a much more literal example of urban theater, or at the very least a pause between acts. In the stuccoed, bulky shadow of Sant’ Ivo della Sapienza, I saw one of Italy’s cinematic auteurs plying his trade.

Okay, maybe he was just shooting a commercial, as it did not have the look of a major motion picture. Still, filming on location, even if it’s the outdoor seating secton of the La Sapienza Wine Bar, has to count for something. The cast and crew were sitting around with a mixture of dejection and mild pique waiting for a graffiti-festooned and extremely noisy dump truck to clear out of earshot.

Inside, the café patrons (or perhaps extras) were trying very hard to look cool, while a bored, tanned and perhaps slightly shopworn starlet glugged down bottled water at one of the iron sidewalk tables. I caught a glimpse of the big zebra-striped clipboard gadget that always seems to show up at movie-making sites, or at least that’s they way it is on television. And on it, the name of the auteur and his work. In this case, one Sergio Prenoli. And the rather generic title of Roma.

Well, at least I had a name. By that point I had also walked straight into a now rather indignant bald man because of my rubbernecking. I sputtered some apologies and headed back to studio and thought about ways to fill up the pleasantly blank slate of my upcoming weekend.

I swung by later with my two friends Vera and Amelia—the Maenad girls, as I call them, because of an amusing mishap that happened on a trip to Tivoli involving two litres of red wine, my puritanical teetotaler habits and an empty mineral water bottle. But that’s another story. Anyway, Sergio Prenoli hadn’t gotten much farther with his great work. The starlet was looking fashionably bored at a different table with a different drink and they’d introduced a boom mike as well as wrapping one of the reflectors in blue plastic. Roma was looking very much true to Italian life: nothing seemed to be happening.

We weren’t stargazing, anyway, we were heading over to the Piazza Navona Christmas fair. The morning was surprisingly cool and clear, the first blue sky I’d seen in days. And it was wonderfully blue, and wonderfully chill. If I’d had any doubts about Italy’s devotion to Christmas, it had vanished. Over one narrow street, someone had hung half-arcs of red crepe and pine, festooned with gilt angels. Meanwhile, Piazza Navona positively buzzed with Yuletide hustle and bustle.

The sun bounced off the pure white stucco of the Brazilian Embassy façade, pigeons wheeling lazily in the cool air. Dozens of booths ringed the long, narrow piazza, while a carrousel spun in the center in a blaze of prerecorded music, flashing mirrors and garish nude caryatids encrusted with perhaps their tenth layer of paint. Everyone seemed to be smiling.

At first glance, some of the stalls had very little to do with Christmas. The girls stopped off at the first one, diffidently hovering on the edge of the carnival, carefully looking through velvet scarves hanging on a rack. The rest of the stand seemed to be devoted to soccer memorabilia, gloves, weird Peruvian knit caps and an incongruous Che flag. A couple of freckled blonde California girls exchanged casual tourist remarks in their native accent, curious to hear after so long in Italy. And then there was the preposterous mannequin torso with molded Redneck sideburns and goatee wearing the Assitalia team colors.

We moved on, passing a serious bevy of pudgy, bespectacled little nuns and a sprinkling of young matrons with toddlers. They seemed to be the target audience, as the booths were so weighed down with great garlands of hanging merchandise it would have taken a midget to clear one of these extravaganzas without knocking down either a bundle of Christmas stockings with pictures of Japanimation characters or La Befana playing soccer or maybe a seven-foot-tall Pink Panther about the color of cotton candy.

It was a six-year-old’s dream come to life. There were action figures of all races, creeds and TV shows, rapiers with cardboard Zorro masks, racks of miniature plastic Roman centurion cuirasses, and then a truly inexplicable guitar-shaped stuffed animal with the words “I love you” on its belly. What on earth would a kindergartener make of this monstrosity? Or the stuffed Rastafarian doll with cigar, bongos and gold teeth? Or even more puzzling, that enormous four-foot-tall gorilla with a snake shoved up his nose?

On the other hand, there were also some wonderful, and doubtlessly absurdly expensive, stuffed tigers and panthers snarling away with open mouths and quite convincing teeth. Most of them looked larger than the children who would want to play with them, set pieces designed to drive young Roman mothers nuts trying to explain to their charges that they did not need toys bigger than some compact cars.

Santa was there as well, either as a mechanical dummy doing a sort of Elvis hip-swinging dance, or available as a four-piece set of musicians, Santa variously on drums, bass violin, saxophone, or most frighteningly, accordion. A string of Christmas lights played several anthems dedicated to this curious secular saint.

La Befana, however, was clearly queen of this festival, and great bundles of Christmas Witch dolls were hanging like strings of onions from a dozen booths. Occasionally one would let loose with a diabolical pre-programmed electric cackle. A few other ones had a faint converted-kewpie look, less Macbeth than Samantha Stevens. Some others even looked faintly obscene.

I don’t really get La Befana the Christmas Witch. I don’t get the Italian witch fascination at all, though I admit to being a bit hazy on her existence up until the other day. (I still am not wholly convinced Strega Nona isn’t really just a brand of pasta, either.) A holiday mascot that looks due to scare the bejeepers out of your average toddler (or at the very least give the most redoubtable first-grader a case of, as they say, the jibblies) seems rather an unlikely giver of gifts. But Italy is Italy.

I did however, get the rest of the fair with crystal clarity. There were remarkable booths bedecked with hundreds of glassblown ornaments tempting fate (and small children) in the clear cool air. They were vast translucent rainbows, some cobalt, some gilt, some shocking pink with feathers like exotic fishing lures. Even more pleasurable were the candy stands, piled high with shiny obsidian-black dollops of licorice, green almond paste and dozens of jelly worms, or the occasional mandarin-yellow wax apples, looking good enough to eat.

And then came the nativity scene vendors. They were everywhere, selling everything and anything you could need to kick your crèche up a notch (or ten). There were plenty of quaint cork-carved stables and working miniature wall fountains and corn cribs and just about any other structure imaginable, some populated by horrible smooth-faced Fontanini knockoffs, others filled with minute figures that looked likely to get trampled underfoot like so many post-Christmas lego bricks back at home.

There were automated smithies with their brawny-armed blacksmiths striking plastic hammers against plastic anvils with balletic repetition that suggested both strength and repetitive stress motion injury, as well as all sorts of weird and wonderful accessories, like baskets of silvery sardines no bigger than grains of rice, tiny (and anachronistic) tin milk pails, frying eggs in pans and even trays of mushrooms. And you thought gold, frankincense and myrrh made for weird newborn gifts.

The girls stopped to examine more scarves at a more ordinary stand which also sold novelty boxer shorts. There was so much more here, the hoardings with the enormous Lenin-sized effigy of Gwyneth Paltrow asking for her martini, the weird hydrocephalic Tweety-bird balloons, the disreputable heraldist at his computerized booth peddling the history, shield and noble title of your last name, and the great festival of travertine that Bernini had erected in the center centuries earlier, the grand rocailled spike of the Fountain of the Four Rivers with its aquamarine water and sober river-gods around which this Roman weirdness seemed to swirl.

And then there was the empty cabin at the center for the coming attraction—a vast nativity scene. Maybe it would have sardines and mushrooms and frying pans, but it would also have something far more important, the Child that all these children squealing for La Befama were ultimately waiting for.

The girls finished up their shopping and we headed back to studio. They decided they had to ride on the carrousel at least once before they left. Not a bad idea, since Christmas at Navona only comes once a year. Which makes me wonder what they do with all those mini-sardines for the rest of the time.

Monday, December 8


As usual, I'd forgotten. It was December first, and the chapel where St. Catherine of Siena had died so many centuries ago, was to be open late that afternoon. Possibly the only shot I would ever get at seeing it, and even worse, it was just around the corner from my place in Via Monterone. Meanwhile, studio was disintegrating into a zoo as final project due dates loomed and groups started to squabble.

I probably should have stuck fast to my desk. But I excused myself and ducked down the stairs into the cool darkness of the early Roman evening, jogging down the uneven cobbled streets and trying desperately to remember where I had seen that enormous plaque marking the site of the Transito di Santa Caterina. It was on the side of an apartment block with flaking orange stucco. Near a big door. An enormous door. Possibly.

This wasn't helping. I had to get there in time.

I turned a corner, realized I was stuck at the back of the Pantheon, and then doubled back, trying to remember what esoteric combination of turns had brought me there before. I was lost, tired and panting from the run, and I was still virtually in my back yard. It was hopeless.

Then suddenly, I was down the right slanting lane, and found myself in the Piazza Santa Chiara. Wait--was it the hotel, the Albergo Santa Chiara? Had the site of St. Catherine's deathbed gotten dedicated to another nun, and a Franciscan to boot?

No. Couldn't be. Maybe. This was Rome, after all. But still, there was another door, and I glimpsed light within, bright and white and almost clinical. A faded fresco of the Annunciation stood above it, blurred by the purple night.

I was even more disoriented when I stepped in. Inside, there was a big arc of lit letters over the door, Teatro something-or-other. I seemed to have wandered into a theater. And an ugly one at that, with a surprisingly plain, blank and weirdly characterless lobby. All it needed was a Go Tigers banner and the cast of Saved by the Bell to look like the inside of an American high school principal's antechamber. It was truly bizarre.

I stammered out "Transito?" and got a blank stare from the docent. Then, still utterly bewildered, I tried again. "Santa Caterina?" Ah, now we're talking. He made some vague gesture to the left, or possibly the right, and I moved forward. There seemed to be an equally bland auditorium off to the left, filled with nuns. If this was the chapel, someone probably should have gotten excommunicated.

But it wasn't. I went up some steps into a low-ceiling'd hallway ornamented with a fragment of stucco cherubs floating incongruously among the white concrete vaults. And there it was, doors open, lights lit, looking like a glorious baroque broom closet.

I was alone, but the rumble of voices from the lobby buzzed distractingly in my ears. It was hopeless. I wasn't going to get a quiet moment this way, not in a million years.

Still, it was an elegant little chapel, faced with marble and ornate roccoco bronzework. I pushed aside the little flower arrangement below the altar and looked down to see the reliquary inside, holding the skull and armbone of some obscure saint designated in Latin as John the Martyr. A few equally forgotten relics were placed behind plaques on either side. Two prie-dieux had been set up, and there were a handful of plastic bucket chairs in rows incongruously standing on the marble floor.

Most of the paintings were surprisingly amateur, showing gentle St. Catherine as weirdly, almost hideously pasty and puffy-faced, in bold contrast to the inlaid understatement of the chapel's architecture. One showed her literally exchanging her heart with Christ, less mystical than grisly. Still up on her image on the altarpiece, there was something to her eyes, upturned serene sky-blue almonds, that seemed to make it all worth it.

I sat there for a while, fumbling with my rosary, and found myself beginning to smile. Calm spread over me. And I realized, eventually, it was time to go and get back to work. All would be well.

But before I got up to go, a curious thing happened. As I said one last goodbye, I realized I'd called her, not St. Catherine, but simply Katy.

Saturday, December 6

The Singing Well-Diggers and Other Entertainments
CD Review: Sing We Noel: Christmas Music from England and Early America. Nonesuch, 1991.

Remember Schroeder in A Charlie Brown Christmas when he plays some alleged "Beethoven Christmas music"? That's me about now. Well, almost. Maybe not Beethoven, but Praetorius and Heinrich Schutze, at least.

Christmas music, for me, isn't Jingle Bells and endless supermarket repetitions of Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer, but rather I take the opportunity during the sacred season to enjoy plenty of early music CDs. There's my two faves, the Gabrieli Consort's two Lutheran Christmas albums. Rather a surprising admission coming from me, Mr. Chauvinist Catholic Triumphalist, but these aren't the work of the Lake Wobegon Church Choir.

The two CDs are dedicated to liturgical reconstructions of a Christmas celebration at the Saxon ducal court in 1660 (including a seventeenth-century oratorio faintly reminiscent of Handel's Messiah) as well as of the morning service at a hypothetical north German cathedral from 1620. They're astounding in their outrageous--almost medieval--joyfulness, a hyperactive collision of Venetian polychoral singing, kettledrums and Ein feste burg ist unser Gott. The fact that the ensemble includes all those weird instruments like sackbutts, shawms, harpsichords, and the beer-bottle-shaped great bass rackett, it's hard to resist.

They've also done an impressive if slightly ponderous two-CD set of Epiphany at Bach's home parish, but we'll get back to that on January 6. Say what you will about that gloomy Teuton Marty Luther, but he could certainly write a mean hymn. Also, ironically enough, there's more Latin in the Lutheran hymns showcased than in the average Catholic parish today. Hmmm?

Okay, I'll get off my high-church hobbyhorse. If you're looking for something a little more general and perhaps user-friendly, the Boston Camerata's lovely Sing We Noel does the trick nicely. The Boston Camerata has put out a plethora of themed Christmas albums, A Medieval Christmas, A Renaissance Christmas, An American Christmas, and so on and so forth. However, Sing We Noel brings together the best of each album, I believe, and reveals an unjustly-forgotten slice of American musical history to boot. It's a favorite around the Alderman household every December.

There's a remarkable vigor to the pieces, such Nowell, out of your slepe with its ear-catching combination of semi-chant and tambours, and also Exultemus et Letemus. The latter was sung by boisterous choirboys on St. Nicholas's day and punctuated by medieval French exclamations of "am I loud enough!" and "can you hear me?" Another delight is Nova, nova, Aue fitt ex Eva, which indulges in some Latinate worldplay about the relationship between the name of Eve and the Ave of the Virgin, punctuated by some charmingly-sung verses in archaic English.

Perhaps the deliberate, archaelogical ye-olde-ness of the lyrics of many of the pieces may put off some listeners. I used to think the accent pronouncing the toast Make We as Mere as We May which immediately precedes the singing of Wassail sounded a bit too close to the Muppets' Swedish Chef character for comfort. Now, however, I appreciate it a bit more keenly and love the exotic bittersweet syllables of the semi-Chaucerian English in the track Gabriel from Evene Kin which transposes a sweet boy-soprano carol with a reading on the Annunciation from the Wycliffe Bible. Wycliffe's Englishing of Scripture was, admittedly, idiosyncratic, but here, we still can glimpse the gauzy figures of the angel and the annunciate Virgin through that verdigrissed haze of Medieval words.

Also, when you puzzle out the translations, some of it is actually pretty darn funny: Make We as Mere as We May instructs that wet blankets should be thrown in ditches, for example, while some of the Latin texts have a humorously shocking lack of political correctness.

And then there's the singing well-diggers. That's a family inside joke, as the final track, Gloustershire Wassail which is an arrangement of Wassail, Wassail All Over the Town, has some peculiar accoustic quirks to it. For some reason it sounds like the singers are processing down a long corridor or perhaps digging a well. It'sa striking conceit, if a little bizarre, but another one of the album's peculiar and sometimes uexpected charms. You have to get used to it, really; medieval music doesn't always sit on the ear the same way modern tunes do, but when you come to know them, you will love them.

Besides that, though, there is plenty to entertain the untrained modern ear. There's a pleasant set of variations on Greensleeves I could listen to for hours, as well as a tantalizing sampling of shape-note singing from Early America in the form of While Shepherds Watched their Flocks by Night. Shape-note singing might be described, perhaps uncharitably, as Palestrina for Dummies, a simplified system of notation from Colonial days that was designed for people without music-reading skills. The result is remarkably harmonic, almost polyphonic but without the sometimes troubling polish of more academic compositions.

It's wonderfully unvarnished. That's part of the attraction of many Christmas carols, isn't it? Most are anonymous, naive, sometimes even silly. But they've endured, and even come to be admired by the greatest of composers. They're humble music enclosing a sacred mystery, just as a humble stable housed, for one night, Something bigger than the whole world.

Friday, December 5

In Search of Christmas

The sage advice of the guidebooks runs thus: don’t go to Rome for Christmas. Oh, it’s gloomy, wet and lonely for those without family to pass the holiday time with. It's crowded. People stay in. Oh yeah, and Italians don’t do the holiday up as much as Americans. Have a nice day. Next page.

I don’t know whether to believe them or not. It is wet, sometimes miserably so. But there are still those wonderful lazuli-skied days, chill and clear like a Midwestern fall. Christmas is, in its own weird Italian way, in the air. Just in the air, mind you, we’re not talking Pine-sol strength odor yet, but a nice, discrete and tantalizing whiff here and there. Enough to keep you going.

Italy’s peculiar way of doing business—eccentric postal system, idiosyncratic bus ticket vending machines and the wonder which is Roman plumbing—occasionally rubs the American visitor the wrong way. Still, I think they may be on to something here in this one case.

Let me explain. However de-Christianized the peninsula is, it’s still Advent in this part of the world, and you can tell it. The Italians are saving the grand fanfares for Christmas and Epiphany instead of dropping dead on St. Stephen’s day from a thousand pre-holiday Christmas sales. For Italians, and for most of Catholic Europe, Christmas isn’t the end but the beginning, as it should be with all Christian holidays.

The Poles, being the wonderful über-catholics that they are, take it even farther and don’t pack up their tinsel and boughs until Candlemas day in February. By which point, they’re probably admittedly rather dessicated. And the fire department in Warsaw breathes a hearty sigh of relief.

Here, anyway, the decorations are fairly discrete, but they’re there. My five minute daily walk from the hotel to our studio in Via Monterone leads me past a cheerily decorated storefront with a big triangular snarl of greenery over the door, and the folks at the shop next door are merrily pinning up their lights and poinsettias. Even the hair salon has an electrified garland in their big glass window next to the wig stands. In studio, the lounge has its own tree (artificial) and garland of blinky lights, which always makes for a welcome greeting. Not too terribly incongruous as it already is a pretty schizophrenic room, what with the miniature marble-inlay fireplace, ornate wooden-beamed ceiling, ugly black vinyl couches and wall of battered metal lockers.

The decoration is all happy and childlike, though perhaps not Americanized to the point of comic excess. That award goes to the hideous Ritalin-deprived mechanical Santa gyrating in the window of the housewares shop down across from the side flank of Sant’ Ignazio. That thing scares me.

Then there are the Neapolitan crèche figures set up in the windows of a tony menswear store. Or the frosty mannequins with tinsel-colored hair at the Rinascente department store with their backdrop of artificial icicles and transparent cuckoo-clocks (but why?) And finally the more conventional Christmas fair booths starting to pop up amid clanging hammers in Piazza Navona. Meanwhile, the great nativity scene will soon appear in St. Peter’s square when the construction hoardings finally come down.

The winter weather is wildly erratic around here. Not a drop of snow, but yesterday began with blue sky peaking through the great billowing clouds, the sun heating them to white-hot silver-gilt. I hardly noticed it until I saw the fish-eye reflection of Sant’ Andrea in the back window of a parked car. A sight that makes you glad to be alive.

Then later, as I went out on a walk to clear my head of the chaos of last-minute project adjustments, it started to rain, soft and cold under a desolate grey sky. And yet even Christmas followed me there as I headed over to the Corso for some serious flaneur-ing. Not consciously, not overtly, but still it was there.

There were the ubiquitous and rain-soaked peace protesters shrieking through bullhorns in down in front of the Parliament building under its winged-hourglass weathervane. Et in terra pax, in a weird sort of way, though they could have kept it down a bit more. There seemed to be about twenty of them, and were a good three or four hundred feet from the palace, so it didn’t seem they were having much luck with their core audience.

Then I saw two carabineri in full uniform stroll by, all brass buttons and blue wool. Their flame-red cape linings were thrown down their backs, their hair cropped and styled in quintessential Italian fashion. Turning to the darkened display case of the closed curiosity shop window down the hill, I saw a host of their miniature counterparts mounted on lead stallions leading a charge. Toy soldiers.

Of course, it seemed the two squadrons of cavalry were charging at each other in the display case, also in quintessential Italian fashion. An amusing conjunction of real life and make-believe. Perhaps even a hint of drizzly-day Christmas magic, even if it was the low-grade magic of the creepy animatronic magician in the next window over flailing around with cards and wand. Maybe it’s not really Christmas, but somehow it reminds you all the same.

It shouldn’t be a surprise. For Americans at least, there’s a Pavlovian sort of nostalgia that accompanies Christmas. Coming from the sunny pine woods of North Florida, the slightest chill in the air brings to mind the Yuletide spirit. I remember during my second Indiana winter—actually, it was still fall, probably not even November—I felt seized by a peculiar, bracing happiness at the arrival of cold weather and pure clear indigo winter skies. I realized it was because it reminded me of Christmas at home, where forty degrees in the cool morning is an excuse for a roaring fire.

You feel it in Rome, too, the irrational and wonderful conjunction of those holiday fragments. In the mild cold, a little pinprick of solitary votive candle flame warming the air of a half-darkened church becomes a whole flaming Advent wreath; a houseplant glimpsed at a distance a Saxon bundle of mistletoe. It’s cheery and cozy, even if it’s just a coincidence. And poignant perhaps, but the first initial shock of recognition retains its sweetness.

Is Rome a Christmas city? I can’t say I know. For Americans, at least, New York is the undoubted capital of the holiday. Maybe I’ve just being brainwashed by dozens of movies about winter in Manhattan, but it’s hard to ignore the connection.

It’s an oddly materialistic fantasy to be sure, forged by imagined shopping sprees on Fifth Avenue, carriage rides, FAO Schwarz and those curious chaste odalisques of Radio City, the Rockettes. The calendaric coincidence that places the cool black-tie secular sophistication of New Year’s Eve within a stone’s throw of sacred, warm glow of Christmas further confuses our mental reverie.

Still, I’m optimistic enough to believe that the New York Christmas fantasy has some innocence at its heart, if it is the ambiguous innocence of a department store Santa Claus rather than St. Nicholas. Protestant America has always been driven by a complex semi-millenarian mix of Christianity and entrepreneurship. What P.J. O’Rourke calls, perhaps unfairly, utopian greed. We’re living amidst the less fortunate fallout of that Puritan experiment, but back in the days of Miracle on 31st Street, we hadn’t lost our innocence yet. The Radio City Music Hall show may begin with the burlesques of Bruce the Elf and scissor-kicking legs but still ends with the living Nativity.

Sometimes, that appropriate grand finale is missing. The dark side of the American Christmas has had curious and sad results when transplanted elsewhere. I read somewhere, in westernized Japan, Christmas (called “White Day,” I think, as St. Patrick’s day is “Green Day”) is celebrated by eating Kentucky Fried Chicken takeout because the Colonel apparently looks like Santa Claus. The sad thing is while that foreign myopia is innocent, our own confusion about Christmas is often much more guilty.

Still, we’ve all heard the lectures about Christmas materialism, and I’d be preaching to the choir to get up on a soapbox about it now. Plus, without getting presents we’d hardly have the joy of giving them in return, would we?

There are other, less sinister, problems that seem to spring from the holiday, theology aside. For example, there are too many Christmases out there. Having been around for almost 2,000 years, the sheer volume of accrued traditions and connotations are mind-boggling.

There’s the New York Christmas, of course, but our mental furniture also remembers Dickensian London with chimney-sweeps and Scrooge. Or la Noche Buena with succulent pork and black beans or even the quintessential romantic English manor of snow, cold stone and scorching-hot wassail. It becomes the quintessential American holiday by the sheer variety of mental-sensory associations that come crowding at the name of Christmas.

You can have any Christmas you want. Maybe it’s a matter of choice, as with so many things (both good and bad) in America but also it is the fact that our holidays are a smorgasborg of jostling customs and traditions from across the globe, the accumulated ancestral memories of a hundred nations.

It’s actually a wonderful thing to imagine, Italian hilltown shepherd bagpipers jostling for attention with fire-wreathed Swedish St. Lucia girls, talking cows and mice, magi in ermine and gold, and St. Nick in all his thousand incarnations from a Turkish bishop to a skinny Dutchman and the charming Coca-Cola logo in velvet and fur.

And all these wild figures are streaming towards another city, very different from glitzy New York or sooty London or even Washington Irving enjoying wassail at chill Bracebridge Hall.

A little town called Bethlehem in the frosty hill-country of Judaea.

Iesu, swete sone dere!
On porful bed list thou here,
And that me greveth sore;
For thi cradel is ase a bere,
Oxe and asse beth thi fere:
Weepe ich mai tharfore.

Iesu, swete, beo noth wroth,
Thou ich nabbe clout ne cloth
The on for to folde,
The on to folde ne to wrappe,
For ich nabbe clout ne lappe;
Bote ley thou thi fet to my pappe,
And wite the from the colde.

Our Lady's Song, c. 1375

Tuesday, December 2


Relay Hermits

A conversation between the journalist William Dalrymple and the Syrian Orthodox archbishop of Aleppo:

The Metropolitan pointed to a geometric shape at the center of his blueprints. 'The church is to be based on St. Symeon's church at Qala'at Semaan: it will be an open octagon and in the middle will be our stylite's pillar.'

'As a symbol?'

'No, no. It will be the real thing. It will have a stylite on top of it.'

'Are you being serious?'

'Perfectly serious.'

'But where are you going to find a stylite?'

'We have one already. Fr. Ephrem Kerim has volunteered to be our first pillar-dweller. He is in Ireland, presently, at Maynooth, finishing his thesis. When he has his doctorate he wishes to mount a pillar.'

'I don't believe it.'

'But it is true.'

'I thought stylites died out hundreds of years ago.'

'No,' said the Metropolitan, shaking his head. 'According to my researches, there were still stylites in Georgia in the eighteenth century. It's a bit of a gap, but hardly unbridgeable.'

'And so your friend, Fr. Ephrem, is really prepared to spend the rest of his life perched up on...'

'He is determined to become as like St. Symeon as he can," said [the Metropolitan]. 'But, if he does find it too difficult, I know several keen young novices who will be happy to take it in turns to be stylites with him.'

'A kind of relay stylitism?'

'If you like.'

Monday, December 1

The Hobbit: The Movie?

Oh, please let it be so!

Edit: Thanks to Brian and Mike for the link.

Sunday, November 30

Fun with the Nestorians

From the immensely witty and engaging From the Holy Mountain by William Dalrymple:

"...Alarmed Anglican missionaries who tried to make contact with Nestorians in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries reported they [the Nestorians, not the Anglicans] would go into battle against tribal enemies led by their bishop, wearing his purple episcopal trousers, and their priests would return bearing the severed ears of their victims. On one occasion a dog-collared Anglican vicar was invited to lunch by a Nestorian chieftain and had the temerity to refuse, offering some lame excuses. 'It is my hope that you will come and stay,' repeated the chieftain. 'If you do I shall be proud to recieve you; if you do not, my honor will make it needful for me to shoot you.' "

Yikes. So much for ecumenism.

Saturday, November 29


St. Athanasius of Alexandria

Greek to Me

"Yes, some really quite strange religions out there in the East. Coptic monks out in the Egyptian desert saying 'old Father Abbot who died last year appears to me when I look over my right shoulder.' " A polite titter. It was the genial bespectacled Englishman at the Almost Corner bookstore in Trastevere speaking. He meant well; he's a good fellow. Still...

I smiled and forced a chuckle.

He'd pointed to a weighty paperback called From the Holy Mountain, presumably a semi-humorous travelogue involving Greek Orthodoxy. It sat on the crowded center island of the even-more-cluttered shop along with Caring for the Neurotic Dog, and something about Nostradamus. Then there was was something like Great Hoaxes in Exploration and Route 66 A.D. with a centurion wearing CHiPs sunglasses on the cover. Neither did anything for me. On the floor was a manual on horoscope symbols.

Nothing was looking appealing, much to my surprise. Even great Homer nods, I suppose.

I'd asked him to recommend something "amusing." The scanty collection of cheesy Clancy-oid paperbacks that line the rickety metal shelves of the Notre Dame Rome Program Lending Library was simply not cutting it for bedtime reading. Neither was re-re-reading the collection of P.J. O'Rourke essays I'd brought over on the plane eons ago. While I'm always one to enjoy his making humorous hay out of the latest round of troubles in Trashcanistan or Upper Revolta, one can only get so many laughs out of a piece on violent South Korean student protests or Cory Aquino, especially over a period of three months.

I flipped through the book; it didn't look half bad, had some nice historical tidbits. Not too irreverent, and the price was about right for the cash I had on me. Though I thought it best, if only for the sake of dramatic irony, to pass over the fact I was planning to be at the Greek Rite Catholic Church on Via del Babuino in ten minutes time. Saturday Vespers, probably right up there on the quite strange meter for him. Maybe I could hide it in my jacket if the priest got inquisitive. "What is this? Is mocking holy desert fathers? Is outrage!"

But seriously now.

I suppose it's technically possible to get from the Lungaretta in Trastevere to Sant' Atanasio near the Spanish steps in ten minutes, but not without some of those pesky Coptic teleportation skills. I'd lingered perhaps too long at San Salvatore in Onda on the way over, paying a call on St. Vincent Pallotti in his silver mask entombed in the glass altar.

Anyway, I threaded my way through the Saturday night hordes of central Rome, passing a jaunty jazz band with portable drumset in Campo dei Fiori, ducking around a brace of young matrons with baby carriages and dodging a flock of nuns in white Birkinstocks. By the time I reached Sant' Andrea the bells of the nine hundred churches, oratories and chapels of Rome were clanging the hour away, and when I reached the Pantheon, it was starting to rain with sparse, indifferent drops.

The Corso was packed, almost verging on Dick Clark territory beyond the construction work near the column of Antonius Pius. Still, the fortune-tellers that sit next to the plastic webbing around the incomprehensible excavations seemed to have disappeared for the evening. I reached the Spanish Steps by 7:20, according to one of the colorfully inaccurate clocks on the street. I finally saw an elegantly nondescript baroque church loom up on one side. A large plaque to one side looked Greek to me, so I bolted in, crossed myself Eastern-fashion and entered another world.

It's mysterious, strange and wonderful, that alone was enough to draw me. Though a tip from my friend at the Irish College and the fact that my Confirmation name was almost Athanasius, well, it didn't hurt either.

Overhead, three vast crystal chandeliers blazing with lights hung from the whitewashed vaults, casting a mysterious twilight over the twin transepts. It was a curious mix of classical, feminine Roman and mystical, virile Greek, evoking some Romanov court chapel in long-ago Petrograd. Candles burned before icons the twin in classical side-chapels, one enshrined in a high gilded tower-shrine near the narthex. Everyone was standing, black silhouettes in the semidarkness. Before me blazed a grand iconostasis embellished with Bramantesque pilasters, painted marble patterning and elegant faux mosaics. A crucifix hovered overhead in the mellow light, while stiff doctors and bishops gesticulated with surprising grace and fluidity from icons decorating the lobed transepts.

Beyond the curtained Royal Doors, I glimpsed the back of the priest standing before the altar, his high black klobuk veil falling over the back of his dazzling gold cope. Two silver trikaria candlesticks flanked the ornate crucifix before him, amber-glassed lamps burning overhead beneath the eucharistic Dove suspended from the half-invisible baldacchino.

It was glorious in a strangely pacific way. The black-robed clerks were singing a complex, droning antiphon that could send shivers down your spine with harmonic, deeply masculine resonances. They stood in the south transept, grouped behind a strangely Latin pulpit with a carved eagle as the bookstand, reading their music from double-sided lecterns. Some were clean-shaven, others as bearded, olive and Byzantine as winged John the Forerunner on a transept icon.

The priest made his obeisances and then appeared at the side door, the curtain pulled across by an invisible supernumerary. He incensed us with a clattering, belled thurible. Vigorous jingling one-armed swings, a flurry of delicate tapping crossings among clergy, choir and some of the faithful.

I tried to fit in and follow suit, accidentally doing it "backwards" or possibly sideways and sometimes absentmindedly kissing my thumb in an effort to create some new hybrid Hispanic-Hellene rite. Not everyone seemed to be following quite as well as I was, a few strolling in and out, some sitting, most standing. A tall, elegant blonde woman left with her husband or boyfriend halfway through the liturgy, while others entered later than I, surprisingly enough. One black-robed clerk left early, too.

But it was still marvelous, with the long Kyrie litany with its chanted, exotic Greek tropes and quick, vigorous responsories. Or even the semi-incomprehensible Italian readings from St. Paul, curiously enough, given from before the pulpit rather than in it. The priest bowed and blessed and bowed again, and cried out in a stentorian voice, "Sophia! Orthi!" as the lectors began and ended, Greek versicles flowing into Italian and Italian back into Greek. Wisdom. Let us be attentive. Not a bad idea for us Latins to remember in our own liturgies.

The candles burning before the icons flickered, sometimes steadily, sometimes almost guttering, the colored lamps of the sanctuary almost glittering with the quickness of their flames. My gaze wandered around the church, over the baptismal font, over the westernized pictures of the Apostles or the foot of the vast image of the church's patron half-visible through the sanctuary doors. He appeared to be trampling on some Arian writings.

But soon the rite ended. The priest, clad only in cassock, golden stole and klobuk blessed us with an ornate Eastern gesture that recalls in the ritualized bent of the fingers the sacred initials of Christ in Greek. And we bowed and crossed ourselves, and I almost looked convincing. The great purple curtain of the sanctuary slowly closed, and the cantors lined up one-by-one to venerate the icons placed on two lecterns before the iconostasis with graceful kisses and bows. The priest joined them, draping his veil and cap curiously over his shoulder as he made his reverence, and then pulling it back over his venerable head.

And the congregation soon vanished, and I was alone in the half-darkened nave of the church, watching the clerks move silently in the darkness, strange black-cloaked figures extinguishing the candles and folding up the lecterns with ritual solemnity. I could smell warm candle-wax, and I could see the rose-pink glass of the icon lamps burning brighter in front of the Virgin and Christ. And so I chose to depart, my head full of resonant memory and warm flame. A clerk locked the door behind me as I exited.

And so I returned to the everyday world of Rome, stumbling into the Corso across from the Florence Moon leather coat shop, the grimy Augustinian church down the street. I strolled down towards San Carlo, had a curious "what-will-they-wear-next?" gander at the extravagant hounds'-tooth-sheathed vapid-eyed fiberglass covergirls in the big window of one of the boutiques and threaded my way back home.

Still, adventure stalked my steps, if only a little bit. I stopped long enough at Santa Maria Maddalena, my favorite Roccoco church, to see the candles burning on its steps and hear a choir do a last-minute rehearsal of a heavenly Mozartean Sanctus for their concert in half-an-hour's time according to the posters. And then out into the little Piazza Maddalena again to hear an accordionist playing the Radetsky March at a sidewalk cafe. I thought I heard applause in the portico of the Pantheon as I passed, but I never figured out why.

And so here I sit before my computer, ponder my evening, and wonder where it all leads. Very strange religions. A joke, I know. Still, strange is not always silly, best not to forget the strange and serious side of life. To see it with all its colors and gilding and weird holy visions, like the miracle of a service I attended, like the heaven on earth the emissaries of St. Vladimir saw at Hagia Sophia more than ten centuries ago.

For beauty, especially nowadays in this cluttered and crowded and hostile world, is often strange by comparison. All the more reason to treasure every last deep chanted note and every clinking swing of the censer.

Friday, November 28

A Highpoint of Medieval Typology

Credit: Elfie Raymond, image and some text

The Verdun Altar

Few things theological are as interesting to me as typological exegesis. "Reading the Word of the New Testament by the Light of the Old" is what makes the Bible come alive for me, and what got this particular Catholic interesting in reading Scripture. It's how I teach Scripture to my 6th grade students and how I explain complex theological questions to Protestants.

Medieval typology is especially interesting, and I suspect this is for two reasons. First, it has an innocence and ingenuity to it that is often lacking in the modern mind. But primarily, those monks simply knew their stuff and had years to spend executing it.

"In the year of the Lord, one thousand one hundred and eighty one, the seventeen tripartite panels known as the Altar of Verdun were completed and dedicated to Mary, Our Lady, Most Holy Virgin, Mother of the Savior, the Lord's humble handmaid, footstool of the trinity, intercessor for sinners, consolatrix of the dying, Mater Dolorosa and Queen of Heaven. The time of the panels' dedication in 1181 fell in the short interval between the second and third crusade. The place of the new shrine was an Augustinian monastery near Vienna, the ancient Vindobona, watching over the majestic course of the eastward-flowing Danube from where the mountains glide into the fertile Pannonian plane."

For example, the above graphic depicts Moses going to Egypt (Exodus 4:18-23). The Latin caption reads,
"It redimat gentem dux sub Pharaone gementem"
"(Moses) the leader goes to save the people suffering under Pharao"

The monks linked this type with another Old Testament image, the Passover Lamb going to Slaughter (Exodus 12:1-14).
"Christi mactandus in formam clauditur agnus"
"The sacrificial lamb is prefiguring Christ"

And then they depict the typological fulfilment, Palm Sunday: Christ goes to Jerusalem (Matthew 21:1-11; Luke 19:28-40; John 12:12-19, Mark 11:1-11).
"Turba Deo plaudit qui quos vult salvat et audit"
"The multitude rejoiced in the Lord who listens and saves whom he pleases."


Coolness! My Diocese Has a Spiffy Website!

And nobody told me.

The Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee. And to think I had no idea we were living on the Emerald Coast all this time...
The Shrine of the Holy Whapping Holiday Special:
Rain, Sophia House, Drunk Frescoes, and an Italian Thanksgiving with the Arkies

It's raining in Rome now, has been all afternoon. I came out of the hotel and crossed Piazza Sant' Andrea, looking up to calmly study some stony counterreformation priests and an ecstatic pincushion St. Sebastian on the church facade. Then I saw a wonderfully hopeful slice of blue sky. But then it hit. Like God turning on the cosmic shower. The hard-falling drops actually hurt by the time I jogged to the big studio door on Via Monterone and jammed my key into the lock.

S. was sitting in the kitchen. She was calmly eating a slice of Spanish omlette, left over from Thanksgiving dinner, and informed me I had hail in my hair. Sure enough, as I toweled myself off I found a whole colony of buck-shot-sized bits of melting ice like salt off a Michigan road. Explains that unpleasant pain bit.

So, stranded without my umbrella, I postponed my afternoon museum-going and got to work on drafting a perspective of my latest project. Besides work and food and yesterday's Gaudi entertainment, it's shaping up to be a quiet weekend in studio. About half the class is out traipsing around Europe and the rest of us are dutifully working on our assignments, or wasting time on Instant Messenger. I'll probably have a crack at door number two later in the day and see who I can find digesting their turkey online.

I have to admit, for six or seven college girls, a gifted Italian janitor and one professor working in a kitchen smaller than some people's closets, the ladies (and two gentlemen) of the Notre Dame Rome Studies Architecture Program put out quite a spread. By the time night had fallen and the table had been set, there was a little bit of everything out there to eat and be thankful for. A better holiday couldn't be asked for, away from home at least.

A word on the setting. We dined, quite literally, under frescoes. A fresco, anyway. A few years ago, some of the undergrads drank too much and decided to decorate the whitewashed vault with their watercolor paints one weekend. Somehow the then-program director didn't find out until the following Monday, and then he couldn't do anything since the dedicatory inscription included his name, in bad Latin, and the pontifical-sounding meme PONT. MAX. Pontifex Maximus, the high priest.

I mean, how can you turn down that sort of memorial?

Plus, the illusionistic cherubs with their dangling feet and little flying wings aren't half bad considering the sozzled genesis of the whole extravaganza. This is another of the many reasons I don't drink.

Anyway, this frescoed storage room is always handy for when we feel like a bit of domesticity. We pull up three or four (or twelve or thirteen) drafting tables, grab as many stools as possible and put out our best disposable plastic silverwear.

It's a delight, a real slice of home in a strange sort of way. There weren't the lingering kitchen discussions over newly-cooked gibblets or surreptitious toast-snatching, but we had other traditions like opening up our online e-cards, full of MIDI hymns, dancing variety-show turkeys, cornstalks and, most surprisingly, Strong Bad's imaginary metal band Limozeen.

All this simulated domesticity reminded me of my first year of school when I looked forward to visiting some older female theo student friends off campus. They called their rented bungalo "Sophia House," after wisdom, and flew the Papal flag from their porch. We, lonely little freshmen, always enjoyed their surrogate maternal presence, and just as importantly, that cozy fireplace.

I still remember going out back with Meghan to gather firewood, one of those little memories that I will cherish forever for reasons I perhaps don't fully understand yet. It's vivid. I can still feel the too-hot heat on my back, a wonderful memory, and one of the girls with her guitar, and my newfound college friends sitting back and enjoying the moment before we would trundle off into the unseasonable and cool November night and return to the hectic world of last-minute deadlines and narrow lofted beds. Now they're gone, graduated, and nobody lives there anymore.

So many connected memories, firelight and collegiate friendship inextricably tied to cold North Florida Christmases as a child. And that heartbreakingly sweet moment when you have to finally say goodbye to your mother on the weekend of freshman orientation. And she looks up at the big golden dome with the statue of the Virgin and tells you our mother will be watching us.

In some curious way it's like John and Christ and Mary at Calvary. It's a moment of transition and separation which makes you feel, paradoxically, closer to her than you'd ever felt before.

Someone's playing a recording of Schubert's Ave Maria in the depths of the studio here. All I need, theme music. But thank God, it is so sweet to remember these things, and be thankful for them.

It all leads back to the same search for home. As urbanists, we architects are used to having it drummed into our heads that you can and must live in the city, in an apartment. The very town becomes your real home, the civic hearth your fireplace, the piazza your solarium and your parlor. It's a lovely ideal, but--but--

Humanity wants something slightly different, I think. I'm not sure how to reconcile it with the civic hive. We want to be inhabitants of a city, but also free citizens with free families. A city of men can't all marry the same impassive metropolitan goddess with her turreted mural crown and Juno profile. You want your own fireplace, your own civic hearth, just as you want your own sweet Vestal to tend it, and you to tend to her. The same goes for women, but I'm stumped on nifty analogies there.

It seems the attempt to recall the domestic tranquility of childhood, however imperfectly reconstructed, has almost the sweet poignancy of the real thing.

And, comparisons with home or no, it was quite an impressive turnout in terms of both guests and food. There was a whole turkey, sliced Italian turkey in lemon sauce, potatoes, a vast omlette, improvised pseudo-cranberry sauce, sausage stuffing, carrots, apple and pumpkin pies, peach cobbler and plenty of ice-cream.

I sat near the director, the ever-genial Professor Y. (the successor to the Pont. Max.), with my seminarian pal John on one side. He'd come in full rig, cassock and fascia, and almost a cappello romano, but he had decided not to overdo it. He wasn't sure how formal it was to be, and when he saw everyone else in shirtsleeves and jeans, he undid a few top-buttons and removed the sash, and then set to work on what to do with all that falling cloth while balanced on a rather high stool.

They don't wear the red and blue piping like they did pre-Vatican II, except for MCs during services sometimes, and Gamarelli doesn't stock his size anyway. Sad, but on the other hand, given the inconvenient costumes some of the other seminaries had as their dress (e.g., the Germans, who seemed to have dressed like an unholy three-way cross between Dagwood, Darth Vader and Cardinal Mazarin) perhaps it's easier on their dry-cleaning budgets. Still, where else would you get to wear a frickin' red cape to class? But I digress.

John said grace, and we all gratefully tucked in. Conversation ping-ponged around the table. One of the professors' wives explaining to Pino, our delightful though monoglot porter-cum-special occasion chef, that the seminarian's Boston accent was like JFK's.

I can't remember what I said to everyone else, but the seminarian and I chatted up a storm. John and I covered everything from Latin to the infinitely fascinating subject of clerical TV tastes. The cartoon Family Guy and scandalous, surreal Father Ted seem to be faves at the North American College. I also bummed some free theological advice off him, which he didn't mind.

The newly-discovered Pope Innocent III action figure and my Catholic Nerd friends with their hagiographic practical jokes also were sources of amusement. Though they were largely lost on the rest of the company, as it probably should be.

Soon the plates were cleared away and the great u-shaped table of drafting boards vanished in short order. The storage room returned to its humdrum, familiar half-empty self. Some of us lingered to watch a movie in the hall upstairs. Outside, the rain started up again. I decided to call it an evening.

And so I called home from my little hotel room in the shadow of Sant' Andrea della Valle. For it was now time for me to feel the warmth of my own family hearth.

Join we all with one accord,
Praise we all our common Lord.
For we all have heard His voice,
All have made His will our choice.

Fellows with the Saints of old,
No more strangers in the fold.
One the Shepherd rule us ought,
One the flock His blood hath bought.

Branches on Christ our vine,
Leading on His life divine:
As with the Father With the Son,
So in Christ we all are one.

--American Moravian hymn, 18th century (Gaudiemus Pariter).

Thursday, November 27

Now I've seen everything

A Google Search directory in Latin. Now, you can go back to your turkey and gravy or pre-turkey nibbling on just-cooked gibblets or bits of dry toast that's supposed to go into the stuffing. Speaking of which, the studio kitchen smells wonderful right now.
For All Your Catholic Nerd Christmas Gift Needs

The Pope Innocent III action figure. Dan, if you're reading this, I think he'd look good next to you-know-who's Thomas Jefferson and Sigmund Freud dolls... And Emily, wouldn't this just be perfect for Fr. Sibley, at least until they come up with a companion Julius II model?

Thanks to the inimitable Eve Tushnet for the link.

Gaudi on Thanksgiving

We're doing a Thanksgiving dinner tonight, with not one but two types of turkey, the good ol' American kind and some newfangled stuffed roll that is allegedly more Italian. So they told me, anyway. The whole studio is filled with mingling aromas, some familiar, some exotic, and I carried the memory in my head after I finished my cereal and left.

We've got today off, and so following the prompting of a sign on the side of a bus and the bilingual directions of the slightly-confused cashier at the Spanish bookshop in Piazza Navona, I turned up at the Chiostro de Bramante next to Santa Maria della Pace to have a look at the new art and architecture exhibition Gaudi e il modernismo catalano.

Gaudi is one of my favorite architects, a sort of free-form art nouveau genius or roccoco medievalist. He simply defies description; trying to link him to Catalan modernismo is somewhat of a tenuous leap, for he himself seems to have felt a closer allegiance not to up-to-the-minute urbanity but medieval guildsman and the ancient classical traditions of the Mediterranean. I can't help but agree, even though sometimes it's hard to figure out where to plug the saintly old architect into the classical canon. That doesn't make it any less true.

It's hard to say what in his architecture makes this believable, but it's there, somewhere, in the drip-castle Gothic impressionism of the Sagrada Familia, the cubist morisco flourishes of his early works or the hallucinogenic Sesamee Street dragonscale dreamscape of his apartment blocks. Nonetheless, he had his followers, and it is a delight to see his work in context.

Professor D., who is picky with his exhibits, would have probably considered it a bit "lame" (his own words) given he would have probably expected a few more models of Sagrada Familia and maybe a dancing bear or two. I found it delightful, walking through the spare Renaissance rooms of the cloister as if in a trance. Semester's end and urban life and a thousand other things had worn me a little thin over the last week and here I seemed finally to find soporific comfort.

It was, like a dream, a wondrous mix of familiar and unfamiliar; simple things well-designed and well-designed simple things. There were some of the old standards I'd seen before in glossy photographs, like the stupendous wrought-iron gateway of Casa Vicens with its palm leaves and undulating spikes, or dozens of new surprises in the form of works on paper, drawings, posters, bookcovers all so full of fresh art nouveau life and industrial Catalan spunk. So many virginal cousins of pre-Rapheaelite women, and so many well-dressed, smiling bourgeois daughters of Barcelona. Both were part of Gaudi's world, the timeless and the secular. Sometimes the two came together, though.

For then there was The First Communion. It is, by far, the most ambitious piece of terra-cotta ever produced. I went back three times to gaze upon it in my semi-stupor, to try and sketch at least one visual sliver of it. The sculptor's name was Josep Llimona, and nobody has heard of him, it seems.

It shows two young girls, two unearthly and pure young girls, though they were probbaly the daughters of some merchant or industrialist or whatever. One has just bent in to receive the Host on her tongue, showing a rim of pearly front teeth between parted lips. The other demurely looks down. It's almost life-size, showing them from the shoulders up, their hands and backs seeming to dissolve into the trailing draperies that cover their hands and heads and even the rail and one girl's prayerbook. Neither my drawings or the catalogue photo even hope to do it justice.

Eventually, I took a final turn out into the upper story of the cortile proper, pausing for a minute on one of the cold marble seats set into the base of the delicate Bramante columns. It's a wonderful, serene, cool little space, so rigorous in line and yet so natural in feel, a counterpoint to the theatrical effect that art nouveau produced with its undulating, vegetal curves. But both are wonderful to behold.

The sky was cloudy and grey above one side, but over the great octagonal dome of Santa Maria della Pace (of Peace!), it began to be veined with blue and silver-gilt. A little out-of-place Gothic spire, perhaps that of Santa Maria dell' Anima (of Souls!), the old German church, rose up next to it. It seemed almost the work of Gaudi with its delicate tilework roof and elaborate wrought-iron eagle finial. And yet it all harmonized. Peace and souls, perfect.

The sun was coming out, and there were many things to be thankful for. And, as strange as that may sound, I can't think of a better way to celebrate today.

Wednesday, November 26

The Borromini Girl: An Annunciation

to an unknown maiden seen sketching in the cortile of Sant’ Ivo della Sapienza

When we entered, a merry maelstrom of studious noise
Full of commonplace bodies,
She was there,
Standing isolated in the center of the colonnade
Of this palace of lacy rain and mildew,
La Sapienza—wisdom,the wisdom of a university
And a universe. Once a college, now an archive:
Wisdom robed in musty cracked sienna stucco.
Wisdom has set up his seven pillars,
In this urban wilderness.

Grass grew parasitically
Between the coal-black pavement stones.

(And I heard a distant voice cry: O Sapientia!)

She continued to draw, oblivious to us and all others.
I knew not her language or name.
She was cool and quiet as a classical column,
Standing there in the pale damp gothic light
Of a Roman drizzle, a perfect sentient counterpoint
To the weird suicidal snail shell of the Borromini
Church’s baroque lantern,
A glorious monument to self-destructive genius,
A flaming crown for a momentary phoenix of invention.

And whanne Sche hadde herd, Sche was troublid in his word,
And thouyte what maner salutacioun this was.

(They say it means charity, wisdom,
The perfect Platonic
Perfection of the sphere, the ball, suspended over the
Rayonnant crown of burning charity:
And the cross above that with the dove of the
Holy Ghost—but we were told not to draw
The brass summit-cruciform,
Lest this baroque-gothic monstrum seem
Less than weightless
By its Sacrifice).

Did she know, this serene virgin,
In rumpled brown corduroy trousers and a sky-blue parka
That matched her pale sapient eyes, far more vivid
Than the empty sky overhead,
Did she know that the tortured architect of this place
Had killed himself, leaving this one of
A dozen unhallowed tombstones?

Borromini hath fallen on his sword.
Borromini hath fallen by his own sword.
And cut himself body from soul.

(And a voice cried: O Adonai!)

No—or perhaps she had looked beyond the blood stained
Across the snow-white stucco, looking
With an intent crook of a dark eyebrow,
With a bowed head framed by a tumbledown lock
Of her bobbed gold-brown hair
With an intent purse of her pink, untinted, elemental lips—

Lips like those that said, in Nazareth,
Two millennia ago: Fiat voluntas tua

With her neck craning forward with vague eyes
With those eyes growing wide
As if she had just seen the whole
Of the Universe, and
As if to hear the music of the building
And the very music of the Spheres—

And the voice cried: O Radix Iesse!

—With all these, with this careful drawing
And attention
And placid serene attention
She birthed the building anew
In my mind, a monument
Not to uncontrollable genius,
Not to self-slaughter and dismal overgrown despair,
A whitened sepulchre
Full of stony funereal torches crowning its highest pinnacles:
But instead it became incarnate blinding whiteness,
A lobed dome like the mind of God, with colorless color
Like the wing of a seagull
Perched atop one Michelangelesque finial in the dismal sky.
Like the wing of the Dove.

And the voice from heaven cried: O Clavis David!

She hesitates—

And Marie seide to the aungel,
On what maner schal this thing be doon,
For Y knowe not man?

—she hesitates, and there is, as she shifts her weight,
A sharp balletic movement as she thrusts out one leg,
A stamping of feet like a foal pawing the earth.
Perfectly commonplace as she is a commonplace girl,
With a pretty, anonymous profile.
She sketches, intently, bending close to her page,
Impossibly close, like a monk in a scriptorium.
A shy scratch,
A deep breath,
A symmetrical parting of her
Drooping gilt locks.
The shy downward turn of her head like a Bernini angel,
A glimpse over one shoulder.

The wind flickers through her hair—O Oriens!
O Rex Gentium!

And the rain spirals out through drainpipes like Solomonic columns.
I am mad with damp cold, and have lost my coat.

And she bows profoundly, stiff-backed,
Stretching and placing her work at her feet
As if to study it
But it seems more as if she is honoring, with a sacred gesture
Those creedal words, et incarnatus est.

And Elizabeth was fulfillid with the Hooli Goost, and criede with a greet vois,
And seide, Blessid be Thou among wymmen,
And blessid be the Fruyt of Thi wombe.

And the monument is clean and new,
Freed from debt and ghost of suicide,
And the cross is bright in the newly-fired morning sun.

O Emmanuel.

And the voice cried again, from the the womb:
Tomorrow I shall be.
For God’s providence and God’s charity, and God’s wisdom, is wondrous.

I looked for her again later, and she had gone.

Tuesday, November 25

If for no other reason, it would be worth being a Philo major for our advisor's emails alone. Here are some highlights from this semester:

"I have a lot of pesky non-majors trying to crash our courses. I know, you're thinking that I shouldn't give them the time of day. But, dear ones, we must have mercy on the unenlightened."

"Since, unlike St. Martin de Porres, I cannot (I don't think) bi-locate, this presents a certain problem."

"Remember that there are a lot of freshmen and sophomores out there who would be much happier as philosophy majors than they are now -- even though they might not yet realize this fact about themselves. Take the time to talk with them and befriend them and invite them into the fold. Your reward will be great in Malloy Hall and in my mind (though not in your pocketbook).

(On the other hand, there are some of you out there spreading nasty, vicious rumors, e.g., that the Logic course is intolerably difficult. How do you expect us to get more philosophy majors if you tell them the ...... er, I mean, if you spread nasty, vicious, rumors?)"

"For even though a mother would not forget the child of her womb, directors of undergraduate studies have been known to forget their advisees."

"Now, all together, "Thank you, Professor F, for taking the initiative to compensate for our negligence! You're welcome. Have a nice day. :--)"

And now, since every other person I know has linked this...

Just when you thought you'd seen it all, it's Papal Anime! The Adventures of Superpope, Episode I

Courtesy of
Headline of the week

Monday, November 24

Life on a Balcony

It is a crime to get used to a city, especially if that city is Rome. Any great city almost overwhelms the first-time visitor with her mind-bogglingly infinite variety, the cafe around the next bend, the grubby forgotten baroque facade, or even the newly-discovered flavor of gelato in the ice-cream parlor, but the trick is to not neglect finding new friends to complement these old memories. And it's not too difficult. Even looking out over one's figurative backyard can be a surprisingly gripping adventure.

The studio where I spend much of my day is about a minute's walk from the traffic-choked intersection and asphalt piazza in front of the pocked travertine facade of Sant' Andrea della Valle. It's bare and unfriendly in appearance, but still there is much to hold the eye beyond the church, like the out-of-place John Bull Pub with its trippy advertising showing a three-faced Van Gough peddling some sort of wanna-be Absinthe. Or the Argentine steak place with its miraculous empanadas or the glass-fronted salon and wig shop next to the (gasp) McDonalds, with its display case looking like the collected trophies of the Barbie Headhunter Tribe.

Despite looking intimidating, there's plenty of friendly faces on the square, such as Stefano, the gentle Mussolini-look-alike who is landlord of the big Fascist-style apartment building on the square. He's always willing to chat with you in garbled Anglo-Italian, and then some. I once ran into him with some friends, one of whom was Spanish--and she discovered one of his chatting buddies not only knew English but castellano, in one of those weird synchronistic urban events that could only happen in Rome.

You need your hip waders to get through the amount of history here. Even though the Corso Vittorio Emmanuelle, that much-maligned pseudo-Parisian gash on the Roman urban fabric, is only about a hundred years old, a walk from our quarters at the pleasantly spare hotel on Piazza Paradiso takes us sights more venerable than the oldest memories of the United States. We walk past two famous palazzi by Peruzzi and Raphael, and our path down these urban canyons even gives us a Morse-code glimpse or two of that wondrous meershaum-colored proto-Salvador Dali lighthouse that Borromini stuck atop the stepped dome of Sant' Ivo della Sapienza.

Sant' Ivo is possibly one of the most extraordinary buildings ever built, and perhaps the most successful cupola in history. If you define successful as being easily noticed, and I would, at least some of the time. When you look at it walking past studio to the Pantheon, the drum seems to strain against its encircling pilasters, on the verge of some weird holy explosion. Far from expressing timeless knowledge, it seems to pulsate with the unruly life of the students that would have populated the old Sapienza, now entombed as the Roman State Archives.

Beyond that, it remains inscrutable, one part beehive, one part papal tiara, one part flaming theological crown, one part ziggurat-cum-Solomonic temple. It's a sin to get used to looking at that.

But even the mundane is exciting, in a certain way. I've said it a dozen times, but it's true. You can get lost in Rome, utterly, completely lost to the point of hopeless disorientation only a few yards from home. I took a wrong turn once on the way back from San Luigi and found myself in a parallel dimension. The inexplicable street sign for Largo Teatro della Valle made sense--there was actually a whole theater crammed back on a side-street, a grand facade that would have made a normal American town the ornament of ten counties. And then there was an Italian Baptist church with a restrained Counterreformation facade. Huh.

Even from the windows of our studio there's a whole little world to enjoy. I think I've seen everything from that balcony facing down on Via dei Redentoristi. There's the perpetual grind and boombox-piped hits of the restorers reworking the Capranica escucheons and anonymous plasterwork of the apartment lobby downstairs. There's the little old man who always passes by at seven and turns right instead of left, or the young man in the window straight across the way chattering on a cell-phone. Cynthia, one of my arkie friends, informs me the next window over, a little shuttered square set into the pink stucco is a high traffic bathroom, and sometimes there's a disadantage to having a studio desk that overlooks that view.

There's also a lingerie shop on the corner, which I imagine comes in handy.

And there's more noble memories. Like the marble plaque recalling the flood of December 28, 1870 with a Plimsol line at around eye-level. And if you raise your eyes, you have a wall-shrine of the Sorrowful Madonna serenely watching over the whole scene in luminous blue.

The Virgin sees everything here, especially what we get up to. We give back plenty to the little street. Yesterday the balcony was an outdoor barber-shop for half the day as one of the boys buzzed away at willing guinea-pigs with too much hair and not enough money for the two pierced bald guys who clip and mousse away at your scalp over on Via Monterone. And then there's the more mundane but equally gripping calls back home as students strain to get the rinky-dink signals of their telefonini up and out over the rooftops to the nearest transmitter. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. It's a slice of life.

Best of all, there's the fact that we have our own private perspective on the ongoing soap opera at No. 20, the big closed-up arch on the lowest floor of that enormous salmon-colored wall. It's next to an inexplicable bent piece of iron gridwork. The sharp-tongued, sharply-dressed blonde young lady who parks her tiny car inside every evening will descend into operatic screaming-fits whenever the inevitable happens and someone blocks her access to the garage. Last time she threatened to call the police, and then came back for a screeching encore of retribution. At least it helps me practice my Italian.

The funniest thing was as we enjoyed this domestic spat as the sun went down, I'd noticed all the other windows were starting to open, golden light within. Two women across the way were eagerly drinking in the drama, while the young man with the phone, now phoneless, had joined the party. We simply sat there and watched from above, from our urban skybox, and nobody seemed to mind. We had box seats at the opera, and free ones at that. Call me a gossip, but it's very difficult to complain about that sort of arrangement.

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