Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Last Emperors

I would be lying to myself if I didn’t admit to approaching my last official, scheduled tour of my solo Italian vacation with ambivalence and even trepidation.  After returning from Pompeii, Sorrento, and the Blue Grotto of Capri, a three-hour tour of the Vatican loomed on the horizon like a plume of black smoke from Vesuvius' crater.

A little background music. I was born Catholic, and raised Catholic, married Catholic in a Gothic cathedral with soaring arches and achingly beautiful stained glass windows, and had my children baptized in the Catholic faith. But… over the years I have also turned into what is politely referred to as a “lapsed” Catholic.

I suppose that part of my disaffection stems from developing an independence of spirit as I grew up. Part, no doubt, came from looking at an all-male, ostensibly celibate church hierarchy pronouncing much about families and reproduction, and thinking, “really?” Part came from just wondering in my heart of hearts where all religions came from, and suspecting that most if not all the creation myths stemmed from groups of men sitting around campfires under starlit skies and trying to put an understandable face on the mysterious universe, while the womenfolk were back in the cave tending the children and stirring the mastodon stew.

But if I had to carbon date the first crack in the belief system of my ancestors, it came when I was only fifteen, and standing inside the Vatican. At the time, I was a product of a Catholic grade school and a Catholic all-girls high school, familiar with obedience, duty, morality, and myriad plaid school uniforms. My godmother, a high-school history teacher, had footed the bill for me to go on a summer study trip to Europe with a group of girls from my high school (Immaculata in Chicago) and two nuns as chaperones and teachers.

At some point in the Italian leg of the trip, we ended up at the Vatican. And as I stood there in St. Peter’s Basilica, I remember looking around at the incredible art and opulence, the sculptures and the gilt and the polished marble, and wondered “if Jesus Christ was standing here next to me, what on earth would be say when he saw this?”  I didn’t think it would be “good job, guys!”

I went back to Chicago and kept dutifully following the rules set by church and family, but that small seed of disaffection stayed and grew quietly. Years later, when an exhibit of Vatican treasures went on display at museums around the world, my godmother and I went to see them in Milwaukee. And again, I felt that familiar disconnect between churchly admonitions to be meek and obedient, unquestioning and good, and the lavishness and opulent excess that characterized the vestments and chalices and various totems of the papacy.  As we left the exhibit, there a guest book for visitors to sign and leave a short impression of the works of art. Amidst the “gorgeous” and “magnificent” and “inspiring” comments, I left one more surly and sardonic: “sell half and feed the hungry.” I then quickly stepped away from the book, looking over my shoulder, imagining an Opus Dei assassin straight from the novel “The DaVinci Code” to be lurking there to quash my rebellion.

Fast forward to my Italian vacation and my final guided tour. Sitting in the lobby of the Hotel Diana at six in the morning, waiting to be picked up for the tour, I promised myself that if my sense of moral outrage over came my thirst for staring at great art, I would detach myself from the group and exit stage left, taking the Metro to Nero’s Golden Palace or the Baths of Diocletian and indulging in some more delicious gelato along the way. The irony didn’t escape me that while I might be steadfastly non-religious on a daily basis, I can still recite the Rosary to get to sleep…and fervently repeat the prayers from my childhood in times of deep fear and crisis.

Jenna and Matt—a young married couple from Vancouver on their honeymoon—shared the lobby with me, and we struck up a conversation as we traveled. The Vatican Museum was the first leg of the tour. Our tour guide was a lively woman who came up to perhaps my shoulder. Despite the fact that she occasionally held a yellow umbrella above her head so that we could locate her in a crowd, the crowds were dense and she often vanished from sight. With no other familiar faces in our group, the young Canadians and I served as each other’s lifelines as various guided tours spilled across each other like cross-currents, and exquisite sculptures held a siren’s lure for the unwary laggard.


Despite my earlier misgivings, I could have spent a month in the Vatican Museum, a week gazing and drooling in the antique sculpture gallery alone. The gallery stretched as far as the eye could see, rows upon rows of Roman and Greek busts and statues. I had not realized before this how Roman statuary focused on the individual rather than the ideal. Despite the cold marble, the carved faces were unique and full of personality. This man looked like he had a sense of humor! This woman looked exactly like Agnes Moorehead’s disapproving grandmother in “Bewitched.” I was captivated. I was mesmerized. I felt a touching, human connection that spanned millennia. I was also nagged by the question of what early Christians would think of a modern Church that acquired and preserved so many artifacts of the Empire that had persecuted and martyred them.  Hmmm…. That thought stayed with me.


The Canadians and I tag-teamed throughout the rest of the morning, waving to each other over the heads of the teeming throngs in the map gallery, and the tapestry gallery, the Sistine Chapel, and St. Peter’s Basilica. And once again, in St. Peter’s Basilica, I was struck by the magnificence and radiance of the devotional art…and the lavishness of the adornment. 


And this time I wondered, if a first-century Christian martyr had been standing beside me, taking it all in, would he think “Ha. And I let my family get eaten by lions for this?

By the time the tour guide pointed out a long, marble staircase at the Vatican made with wide, shallow steps for the Pope to ride his horse upon, I thought about the ancient Roman artifacts of an earlier empire that surrounded us and underlay the modern, and suspected that in the centuries after the fall of Rome and the ensuing Dark Ages, a new, powerful empire in its own right had simply and naturally emerged to replace the old.

The mixed wonders of the Vatican tour finally behind us, I took Jenna and Matt (about as old as my youngest kids!) under my wing and offered to show them how to return to the hotel via the Metro. We stopped for gelato on the way, of course, at the same shop I had visited on my first day in Italy and discovered that heavenly rum-infused chocolate tartufo.

We retired to a bench on a busy square while we ate, grateful for a chance to get off our feet and watching traffic and pigeons and pedestrians vie for space and safety as the traffic patterns changed with the lights. Then, after negotiating our way to the proper Metro stop for the hotel, I gave them a quick tutorial on how to reach the Coliseum from there as well. It felt so good to do a little of “the mom stuff” again!

We parted company, and I returned to the Hotel Diana to regroup and change into a different pair of shoes. Then I was off again, determined to see as much of ancient Rome as I could in the remaining afternoon. By the time I had walked the outskirts of Nero’s Golden Palace (closed for restoration), and toured the basilica next door to the Baths of Diocletian and St. Maria Maggiore’s cathedral, I was toast. I gravitated back to the rooftop garden at the hotel. A waiter passed by. Would I care for a drink? Why the hell not.

I packed, slept, and awoke before dawn. I returned to the rooftop garden once more before checking out, enjoying a cup of hot chocolate in splendid solitude.

In the early light, I saw Rome in all its modern sprawl and splendor…and magnificent remnants of its ancient splendor as well. I can’t wait to come back to explore it again.

1 comment:

Deanna Anthony said...

I haven't visited you in such a long time! I don't know why... I'm so glad I stopped by! Wonderful post! Great writing, as usual!