I was watching NASCAR at a bar the other day. Normally, I would never watch NASCAR, but it was what was on the T.V.. I thought about how great it would be if NASCAR made a rule change and installed traffic lights on the course. The lights would randomly change from Red to Green, no Yellows. There would be no pattern to the changing; drivers would not be able to time it. For every Red light that a driver runs, he shall be assessed a 500 dollar fine after the race and 10 seconds shall be added to his final driving time. I would like to see just one race in my lifetime with this rule. Perhaps it would make the sport appear more practical, as if the traffic lights would make NASCAR jump off the track and into the living room, saying: “Hey Kids – If you ever find yourself driving really fast, and you have to stop for traffic lights, here’s how its done”. No one ever runs from the cops on a circular race track!
Sitting in construction traffic today, and for the first time, I am not annoyed. It isn’t because I have nowhere to be (I rarely do), but because the construction reminds me of mankind and the ability to make things, to create. I think of Rome, and I imagine a thousand years from now, a historian or an archaeologist or some other science minded professor talking about the very road I am sitting on. He says to his colleagues or his students: “These roads took people all over the continents; they went under oceans and over mountains. The earth was moved to make way for them.” And the colleagues and students all nod their heads in understanding. They are not building a road; they are building what will eventually become history and I am glad to be a part of that.
I look back at Rome and am glad to know what’s happening there. It is 2:30 here, and I am restless and afraid of the bed. But in Rome, it is noon. The sun is out, the Campo De Fiori has been busy all morning. The shop keepers are imagining that in only an hours time, they will pack their stands. Not because they are eager to leave…but because that’s the way it is. The restaurants will break their heldbackedness, and spill all the way out into the plaza. Where once stood the bright red and yellow tents of the fruit stand, will come the striped umbrellas. They are smaller. In some cases – one for each table. The pigeons will forget their morning quest for fruit guts and croissant crumbs and begin the hunt for discarded pasta and left over pizza. They are probably meat eaters by now.
A few kilometers outside the city walls lies one of Rome’s greatest hidden spots: the catacombs. One of the greatest misconceptions about the catacombs is in the word “hidden”, not “secret”. The contemporary idea about the catacombs is that they were places for Christians to hide during the persecutions, an idea which many are trying to put down, our tour guides and Robert Hughes included. On the trip out there, the guide opened the tour with a “sit down and pay attention” lecture. With slides prepared and everything. This lecture began with a fierce monologue on what people think the catacombs are and why it would have been impossible for them to stay secret. “I mean seriously,” she said “there were over 80 catacombs, some using as much as five acres of surface area. They weren’t a secret.” There were also massive stone shafts built into the grassy surface to allow for ventilation and lighting. She explained further that “while sometimes the catacombs were used for worship meetings, they were in no way secret and if the pagans did find Christians worshipping…”*and here she made the gesture of slitting her own throat*
The truth is more like Robert Hughes describes: “…since the pagan authorities would have known where all the tunnels were: nobody could have hidden down there.” (175). Rather the catacombs were a convenient way for the pagan authorities to get the dead Christians removed from the cities and buried outside the walls. They’re nothing more than massive burial sites. As our tour guide said of the Catacombs of San Calisto: “There’s more than sixteen miles of tunnels, on five levels, going as deep as 30 meters underground. Buried here were more than half a million bodies.” The first few numbers are impressive, but when they tell you how many bodies were housed here, in hopes of being resurrected, it dazes you for a second. When you hear a number that large, the first thing you sort of expect is that you know one or two of them. But then you remember that these are bodies stored up from centuries of time, and haven’t been used since at least the 500s.
Now, they’ve been stripped and are mostly fallen apart. As you walk through them, you can see the original dirt (of which there is a respectable amount) but for the most part it is replacement bricks. All the graves are empty, the bones having been either move into the city center, or a few unfortunate skeletons that were stolen for the black market. A small amount of marble remains, most notably a few fragments from the sarcophagi of martyrs and popes and even few martyred popes. The most impressive of all the remaining fragments are the paintings on the walls and roofs. Early Christian symbols, like fish and loaves, the sharing of communion and probably my favorite: one of the first known representations of the Cross. I’m not religious in anyway, but I thought it was neat that this single image that people put so much meaning behind today, wasn’t even the first image of the faith or an important one for at least 300 years after Christ’s death. Oh religion, you silly goose.
In chapter four of Rome, Robert Hughes describes the beginning of Christianity and its eventual hold of the entire city itself. In a contemporary context, it’s easy to let the long history of Papal power overshadow the period beforehand, a time when Christianity was far from dominant. Hughes says that “Christians, few but growing in number, led little-noticed lives in the forest of sects and cults that the decay of ‘official’ Roman religion produced” (137). It’s difficult to imagine the city of Rome, now littered with churches, to be anything but a Christian city. It’s hard to ignore the presence of Madonna and Child representations that appear in paintings and on buildings all over the city. But the truth is that the span of history is so immense, it takes us back so far, that it challenges what we’re able to wrap our minds around. Rome is so ancient, that it forces us to reevaluate the things we all take for granted. The world as we know it is constantly rearranging its order. Like Rome, the states in power will not be in power forever; it’s inevitable. It’s a continual flow of power, and we have the benefit of watching Rome’s 2800 year existence to help us make our decisions. Not just about religious tolerance, but basic human rights. Our political and economic situations need to be reevaluated, our educational policies are failing huge amounts of our students. Sometimes it’s difficult for people to accept change. But it might help us to understand that history is built on change, empires can rise and fall because of change. Things can’t ever get better if we don’t embrace the change.
In Hughes’ third chapter, he mentions that “Imperial Rome gave birth to what must be, bar none, the greatest piece of narrative sculpture from the ancient world” (112). It is Trajan’s column. At one hundred feet high, it is the ancestor of the comic book. Wrapped around it, in stone carving, is a graphic reproduction of Emperor Trajan’s military exploits. It is also one of the most revealing sources in trying to understand the battle methods and equipment of the ancient Roman Empire. But it’s also a testament to creative storytelling. It is, without a doubt, the predecessor of text-image based creative non-fiction, a genre that one could argue is making a strong impact today. While obviously they didn’t have the film technology that we do, it’s fascinating to think that our modern cultures have clear roots in the past, on so many different levels. The old cliché saying that “history repeats itself” is true for so many different reasons. While we may continue to go to war with insane motives, we also continue to like a good story. A picture story, no less.
In the second chapter of Robert Hughes’ Rome, he discusses Rome’s fascination with marble. “The show material was marble,” he says, “the best available.” He paints a glorious description of color, even in describing the whiteness of the Luna marble. But beyond that, Hughes describes “Pink from the Greek island of Chios, greeny blue from Euboea and yellows from North Africa.” It’s a wonderful array, and marble, thankfully, doesn’t lose its color over time. It’s one of the beautiful feelings to walk up the marble staircase, or turn a corner in a museum and find a marble sculpture standing there, in nearly the same form as it has always been. While fingers and noses may chip off, the texture of the stone never changes. And unlike the oldest paintings, which have inevitably frayed with time, the ancient statues still remain. Standing in the same room as a Bernini (which from the Roman Perspective, is rather young), it is difficult to wrap my mind around the idea that such a force of genius was responsible for the molding of the stone that now sits in front of me. Bernini touched that same stone. But the marble goes back much further, and it still preserved in the form of the ancient statues: busts of emperors, popes, their wives and sisters. There are busts with eccentric hairdo’s and creepy mustaches, and people in all sorts of odd poses. It’s the culturally relevant equivalent to seeing Michael Jordan’s rookie jersey, or maybe a copy of Seventeen magazine. But instead, it is an original, three dimensional piece of art, sculpted from marble, studied by thousands upon thousands of those before me; all the way back to the moment it was pulled out of the mountain.
A cat with three good legs. The fourth is lame, tucked under his tabby body, and twitches whenever he pauses to sit. He sits on the spot where Julius Cesar was stabbed, and the course of history was changed forever. There have been lots of times when the course of the entire world was changed forever, and this is the spot of one of the big ones. Outside the Colosseum, a place of unfathomable carnage, there are horses strapped to carriages, waiting dully for someone to pay a ridiculous price for a ride down a busy avenue, with the daily commute whistling by. The throngs of people, armed with cameras and city maps, make the cobblestone streets and sidewalks nearly unnavigable. A blind dog sits tied to a pole, while his owner sets out a blanket, on which he sets an array of purses, handbags and wallets. He calls everybody friend, and promises everybody the same good prices: fifty percent off to everyone. He follows people back and forth over the bridge; it is his job to be intrusive. To be pushy. To be annoying. Perhaps a few people will be willing to pay five euros to get rid of him. The bags are all stolen. A bronze statue of Bruno, standing in the spot he was burned, glares over the Campo Di Fiori, where markets are busy with fresh produce, and tourist style jewelry. But there are also many homeless, walking around, asking for money in a variety of ways, like simply moaning the word “poverty”, over and over. Outside a church designed by the great Boromini, a man with no legs rattles a cup with a few coins in it. The cup is tin, and it makes the noise even louder, and it is very difficult to walk past him and not give a coin. But if you did, your coins would be gone before you left the plaza. I wonder if he thinks the tourists who visit a church are more likely to give than the ones who visit the Colosseum. A bird with a broken wing waddles beneath restaurant tables, searching for forgotten scraps, discarded crumbs, and another day on Earth. I wonder if he recognizes the dead bird down the street, the one I had to step over on my way here.
If America were to let one of her precious sites (The Lincoln Monument, The Washington Monument, etc…) fall apart, the rest of the world wouldn’t care much. America, of course, would be in a terrible uproar, but globally, it wouldn’t be a big deal. If Rome were to let her Bernini statues collapse, or Caravaggio’s paintings to deteriorate, the rest of the world would be pissed. It feels as if Rome owes more to the rest of the world, because Rome is responsible, in some ways, for the rest of civilization. There was an agreement during the Second World War, that bombs wouldn’t fall on the city. Nearby Viterbo, however, took a pounding. But that agreement speaks to the rest of the world, and the recognition that Rome has as a site of preservation, an importance to the history of the world. So how does the modern artist find him or herself in the shadow of all this global responsibility. Because Rome is responsible for the restoration and preservation of all these classical pieces, how can she allocate the funds for a generation of modern artists. Walking around the Maxxi, Rome’s tribute to modern art, it becomes apparent that there is little opportunity for an emerging artist to make their name in this great city. Not only are the resources going to places like the Colosseum, and the Vatican, but so are the tourists. The admission to the Vatican is the same as the admission price at the Maxxi. If you had a single day in Rome, and 12 Euros to spend, which one would you choose? The Vatican, no doubt. So, while there are moments that Rome seems overwhelming in what it has to offer. It’s monumental history easily overshadows anything in the Americas, but there is a downside. There isn’t a community ready to engage contemporary art. For a city of nearly 2 million people, it just doesn’t have the interest or the funds to support up and coming artists. Besides, how would one feel having to be compared to a Raphael or a Michealangelo or a Davinci. It might destroy the soul, the creative drive. So while Rome does serve up the best preserved art that history has to offer, there is a fallback. Rome seems to have paused it’s creative motivation. And perhaps it is right that Rome pass the torch to other parts of the world, that she allows the Londons and the New Yorks and the Beijings to be breeding grounds for the next generation. Maybe it takes a trip to the Maxxi for all of that to be put in perspective. It’s easy to get lost in the massive amount of history, but it’s also difficult to find oneself, as a modern artist in Rome.
I am not religious. I do not believe in God or any other great sky wizard. Before coming to Rome, I knew that there was going to be a trip to the Vatican, to the famous St. Peter’s Square, where the well known Pope gives his sermons. I figured at some point I would meander down and check it out, and if possible I might swing by for a few words from the man dressed in white. But, walking up to the massive circle at the base of the church, knowing that everyone there was gathered for a huge prayer for Syria, hearing the harmonious, echoing, chilling chant of thousands upon thousands of people sends shivers. Not just up the spine, but into each individual hair. From half a mile away, it already feels bigger than any church service I’d ever been to. There were more people in the aisles than I had ever seen gathered for any religious event ever. The countless heads, adorned with an unfathomable variety: nuns in black headwear, nuns in white headwear, nuns in grey headwear, balding priests, long haired college students, and of course: a curly haired blonde.
I know myself well enough to know that I can sit through 8 to twelve hours of anything. I had an old college roommate who liked to put ‘Everybody Loves Raymond” on T.V. for background noise. Like I said, I can sit through anything and I was more than willing to sit through the Syrian Prayer for Peace, because, after all, it is the Vatican and it is the Pope. But I wasn’t going to believe. I wasn’t going to shut my eyes and pray to Ole God up above. I was going to smile and nod and not do anything to call attention to myself. It’s easy.
But when the noise fills you, and you realize it’s not actually noise, but the collective vibration of fifty thousand voices, fifty thousand throats all joined together, things change. It ceased to be about a God or a religion and became a gathering of people. In some moments, it felt like I was at a massive dinner party and everybody there was a guest, a friend, part of some larger, universal family perhaps.
One of the first things I learned about St. Peter’s square as a child was that there are two places on Earth that can hold more people. A soccer stadium in Brazil (argentina?) and the University of Michigan’s football stadium. So, while there were moments it felt like a dinner party, there were others that it felt like a sporting event. But there was no one rooting against anyone. Everyone in the square was supporting one cause, one mindset. When the Pope and other high ranking members took their turn at the podium, they spoke Italian and the words were immediately lost to me, except for a few mundane numbers. I made out the word for “twelve” once. But it didn’t matter. It didn’t matter because I was standing with fifty thousand people who all wanted the same thing: no more pain. While sporting events rely heavily on teasing and booing the opponent, the goal is the same: we just want the team to win. That’s what happened at the Vatican. Prayer was no longer about some trivial appeal to God for some miracle to stop the violence in Syria. Prayer was a personal connection to each and everyone else around. It didn’t matter what color the nun’s headbands were, or how stinky the man next to me was, or how bad I had to pee. The power of the situation turned my eyes in towards myself. I don’t know anyone in Syria, but I know I didn’t want bad things to happen there. I don’t know enough about the political situation to make any sort of specific request, I just knew that I want the hurt to go away. And so did everyone else around.
Looking up, you see a ring of statues for saints and martyrs and ancient priests. Much like the banners hanging at sports arenas, displaying all previous achievements, the statues glare down at the multitude and with stony silence, they shout that that success has happened before. They are the testament to the power of the masses. If this many people can join together, not in the name of God, but the name of a common want for peace, then surely something can be done to stop something that’s bigger than the individual. Violence, especially on a national scale, transcends the individual. There’s something else at work. Ulterior motives, greed, unpaid debts, whatever it is, true evil is bigger than any single person. To think otherwise is arrogant. In order to rise and meet that challenge, the want for peace, the desire for the end of pain must also transcend the individual. I alone cannot stop the war in Syria. No single person can. Of course there are moments when an invidual rises to a challenge and pushes the masses forward, but they can only do so because of the power of all those supporting the same cause. The service at the Vatican brought the masses out. Before I went to Rome, I imagined being at a service (in my imagination, St. Peter’s was significantly smaller than it is in real life), and the Pope asked that everyone lowered their head in prayer. I, being the person that I am (especially in my imagination), am the only one in the crowd not bending my head in prayer. I survey the room and silently mock all those who thing they’re having some unique connection with the Great Sky Wizard. But, when the real life Pope said something I couldn’t understand and the rest of the crowd lowered their heads, I knew that it was the right thing to do. It wasn’t about a personal appeal to God, but a look inside myself. I wanted what these other people wanted, and it’s good to look inside myself to make sure. Of course there were others who didn’t bow their heads to pray and I know everyone prays in their own special way, but this was new to me. I wanted to look inside. I wanted to make sure that I knew what I was really feeling about a conflict that happens on the other side of the globe. I have no family, no friends, or even any brief acquaintances that will be in jeopardy at any point during a crisis in that part of the world. But I want the pain to stop. I don’t know who the pain belongs to, but I know that I want it to stop. Just like when I go to a baseball game, I know who I want to win, and occasionally I need the crowd around to remind me, especially when it’s a losing game. The crowd at St. Peter’s, the symphony of foreign languages and the smell of a thousand different cultures reminded me that I know what I want, regardless of whether it happens in Syria or Southeast Portland. I want the hurting to go away; I want the Syrian kids to worry about if they have enough money for beer, and not whether the bombs will hit their neighborhood. The same as I don’t want the kids in SE Portland to worry about Dad hitting them with the belt because they didn’t turn in their homework. I want them to worry about whether it’s too rainy to play frisbee without getting muddy. That’s what I want.