Tri-City Herald, Sunday, August. 24, 2003

Roman Holiday

©2003 Valerie Kreutzer

Roman men dressed as soldiers of ancient RomeViva Il Papa” chanted the throng of believers on Rome’s St. Peter’s Square.  About two hundred thousand had come to attend the Easter mass celebrated by Pope John Paul II.

From where I stood, the pope was a mere dot under the red canopy in front of the world’s biggest cathedral.  But TV monitors beamed his larger-than-life image over the piazza and into millions of homes around the world.  This was, after all, the peak performance in Catholicism’s capital.

Plagued by Parkinson’s, the seated and frail pope held forth for almost three hours.  He read his Easter message slowly, often mumbling, but with indomitable spirit.  With passion he admonished us to work for peace, especially calling on the young to spread goodwill.

This pope’s abhorrence for war is rooted in World War II experiences in his native Poland, as he had explained to peace demonstrators only weeks before.  His stance against war with Iraq had helped inspire the largest peace movement in human history.  On this Easter morning, the pope’s wish for “pace (peace) en Iraq” and that country’s chance to rebuild with international assistance received thunderous applause.

A linguist, John Paul II blessed us in dozens of languages, including Esperanto, the artificial world language.   As if on cue, the heavens opened with a downpour to add their blessings.  I spread my little blue umbrella over the shivering couple next to me.  No church regulars, I realized, when I offered my hand during the ritual of passing the peace.  “Yes, we need peace,” said the German woman, self-consciously squeezing my hand.

Peace was a popular slogan last Easter in Rome.  Vendors selling Pace banners had a swift business.  Pace flags with rainbow colors hung in windows and fluttered from balconies. 

Romans haven’t always been into peace, I realized, when I toured the Colosseum, the city’s 2,000-year-old amphitheater.  At its inauguration, 5,000 animals were slaughtered in one afternoon, followed by 100 days of violent gladiatorial games.  To keep the crowds entertained, men and women and sometimes midgets fought each other and often for their lives.  By booing or cheering, spectators would make decisions over life and death. 

An architectural jewel of brick, concrete, and arches, the colosseum became the model for all modern stadiums.  It seated over 50,000 spectators who could leave within minutes through 76 exits.  Its stage could be flooded to simulate raging seas, and under the stage cubicles, several stories deep, housed animals that would be brought up by elevators. 

“That’s were the gladiators waited for the lions and tigers,” explained a touring dad, pointing to the cages.  His little boy seemed impressed.  The ancient structure still carries imprints of the excitement and bloodshed of the long-ago spectacles that were finally banned in 438.

During the following centuries, earthquakes, fires, the pillaging of stones to build Rome’s churches and palaces reduced the colosseum to its present ruin.  Weeds now burst through cracks and a huge cross has replaced a statue of Nero, the Roman emperor who ordered the death of many Christians.  On the Saturday before Easter, the pope wheeled through the colosseum in his electric car, extending his blessings as if in an act of exorcism.

Rome is history at its best and worst, a pinnacle of civilization with lapses into barbarity.  It is laced together by beautiful churches, grand piazzas with monumental fountains, narrow streets ruled by alley cats, and gelate (ice cream) shops, offering most delectable choices—my favorites were pistachio and hazelnut.

Savoring a cone from Tartu, the famous gelate store, I settled on the rim of a fountain on Piazza Navona.  On Saturday afternoon this was a good place for people watching, with a talented mime adding much merriment.  Within seconds this clown in suspenders could grasp the essence of unwitting tourists.  He would follow them, mimicking the sexy walk of a young girl, or the hunched shuffle of the Chinese woman.  The crowd’s laughter and coins were his reward.     

In the early evening you can stroll with Rome’s beautiful people on the Via del Corso, sit in the glow of the setting sun on the Spanish Steps among young lovers, or throw your coin and wishes for a return into the famous Trevi Fountain.  Whatever you do, wherever you go, Rome beckons to explore its beauty and awesome history, sometimes taking you also out of town.

On Easter Monday I boarded the 218 bus to the Via Appia, only a stone’s throw from the city.  This “Queen of Roads” and was built in 400 BC to connect Rome over a stretch of 500 miles with cities in southern Italy.  Today you can walk its cobble-stoned remnant or rent a bike for a lovely ride.  The road is lined with ancient tombs and catacombs, dating to the times when Rome forbid burial within its city limits.

While pagan Romans practiced cremation, the early Christians preferred burial.  Christian landowners offered them ground in the volcanic earth that is easy to dig but hardens when exposed to air.  Since the early Christians were poor and ground was scarce, the niches to bury them were dug deeper and deeper, creating a 400-mile labyrinth, at times five stories deep. 

“On my first day here,” said the priest who guided us through the San Callisto catacomb, “they turned off the lights at five, not realizing that I was still down here.  I nearly panicked.”  No, you wouldn’t want to get lost in these narrow corridors, now dimly lit by bare bulbs. 

The priest’s flashlight pointed to Christian symbols along the walls of the empty niches: a dove, a fish, an anchor hiding the symbol of the cross, the good shepherd with a lamb on his shoulders, and figures with raised arms in gestures of prayer.  Sixteen popes were buried in San Callisto, some were martyrs.

“After the attempt on his life (in 1981), the pope came here and knelt on this spot,” said the priest, pointing to the ground of a nook holding the remains of three third-century popes who died for their faith.  “This is a holy place.”

Barbarians plundered the catacombs in 800, and the site was forgotten for a thousand years, until it was excavated in 1850.  Now the catacombs are an important stop on the Roman pilgrimage. 

So is the Vatican Museum.  I approached its entrance on Tuesday morning with a sinking feeling.  The 200,000 who had attended Easter Mass now seemed to queue for miles around Vatican City’s mighty walls.  Surprisingly, it took only 30 minutes to get to the entrance.  I paid my ten-dollar entrance fee, now free to roam the world’s largest museum with four miles of displays, covering art from Mesopotamia to the present day.

My goal was the Sistine Chapel with Michelangelo’s brilliantly restored frescoes.  They are considered masterpieces of the late Renaissance.  Michelangelo was only 33 in 1512, when he finished the ceiling after lying recumbent for almost four years. 

The ceiling’s centerpiece depicts God as an old, bearded man in a cloud, opposite a reclining and relaxed Adam.  Their arms reach for one another, their fingers almost touch.  There was a hush over the chapel as hundreds of tourists craned their necks to decipher Michelangelo’s rendition of creation, surely one of the most inspired works of religious art.

The Sistine Chapel is the pope’s personal chapel.  It is here where the College of Cardinals elects a new pope after the death of a ruling pope.  The ritual is ancient.  It will continue, like so many rituals that have made Rome the Eternal City.     

If you go...

Accommodation: Book early and expect prices to be higher at Easter.

Hotel Italia, Via Venezia 18, on a quiet side street near Termini train station; $85/single, $105/double;

Albergo Santa Chiara, Via Santa Chiara, behind Pantheon; $150/single/$230/double;

Bed and Blessings by June and Anne Walsh, is a guide to convents and monasteries offering overnight stays; the book lists dozens of places in Rome, with prices from $25 to $175.  Book early!  When I inquired in March for Easter in April, the nuns told me I was way too late. 

Getting around: Hotels provide free maps and $4 day-passes for Metro/buses. The ATAC city bus, leaving from the Termini train station, is the cheapest way ($8) to see the sights, with the possibility of getting off and on throughout the day.