“Rome in a Day”

“Any member of the generation commonly referred to as “Baby Boomers” grew up on a steady diet of Saturday morning cartoons.  These preceded the current Japanese inspired techno-animation productions filled with their odd mix of sci-fi appearance, not a small amount of violence, and a preachy theme of heroic values all calculated to sell a line of products and grow into a feature film.  The Saturday morning cartoons to which Boomers refer were really all about fun.  Among those programs that endure in our collective memories was the “Rocky and Bullwinkle Show” featuring a series of regular characters anchored by the improbable duo of a flying squirrel and a moose. Their main antagonists were a husband and wife team of Russian spies, Boris and Natasha.  It was, after all, the middle of the cold war, and someone had to make light of the nuclear threat that seemed to hang over us all.

Among the vignettes flickering before our bowls of Cheerios were Dudley Dooright of the R.C.M.P., Captain Wrongway Peachfuzz, a regular recitation of Fractured Fairytales, and a beagle-like dog named Mr. Peabody who, along with his boy Sherman, led us through Peabody’s Improbable History.  Using a machine that spoofed the room-sized computers of the day, Peabody could set a date and location on the Wayback Machine and be transported with Sherman to see firsthand how things really were.  On a Mediterranean cruise last summer, our ship, the Silver Wind, docked for one day at Civitavecchia, the port city 60 miles from Rome.  Through the services of an almost magical guide named Carlo Papini and our driver, Alessandro, with his shrinking Mercedes which could fit through just about any tight space, we compressed the centuries and toured 3,000 years in 10 hours!   We used Carlo’s Wayback Machine to cover the Eternal City from top to bottom, origins to present.

Carlo has an interesting history which makes him and his mother, Ludovica, a secret weapon for us visitors to Rome from Fort Worth.  They lived in Fort Worth and Carlo attended our children’s school.  He then graduated from the University of Texas.  While he owns ski shops in Red River, New Mexico, and Amarillo, he spends most of his time in Rome as a guide, following his mother’s lead, teaching travelers about his noble Roman ancestors.  And guide he does!  Our day with Carlo may be the most efficient day of touring I have ever spent.

Such an overwhelming city as Rome could not be approached in such a short time in any other way.  We saw most of the places everyone expects to see from the Roman Forum to the Catacombs beneath the church of San Sebastian.  We had lunch in the shadow of the Four Rivers Fountain on the Piazza Navona, its oval shape derived from the underlying Circus Domitian.  It seemed that every square in this city was beautified by a fountain by Bernini and every important building was conceived or executed by Michelangelo.  Alejandro, with a wink and a wave to the police, drove the Mercedes through the barriers and the pedestrian crowds of the Via Condotti to the Spanish Steps covered with tourists like so many pigeons next to the apartments once shared by John Keats and Percy Shelley.  We threw our customary coins into the Trevi Fountain.  As a tribute to our daughter’s prior visit to Rome, we had our pictures made in front of the “Drunken Ship,” a bar in the Campo di Fiori which is the unofficial headquarters for American college students visiting Rome.  The magnificent Vatican was toured rather later in the afternoon when most of the bus tours had already passed through.  Whether explicating the paintings in the Sistine Chapel, all so familiar yet exotically foreign, or arranging access to a vaulted area to view the Vatican treasury, Carlo multiplied our understanding in ways that would have been otherwise impossible to gain.

Through the Wayback Machine, we experienced some unique perspectives worth sharing.  Starting on the Capitoline Hill behind Michelangelo’s grand piazza and the center of Rome during the Renaissance, the Campidoglio, we gazed across the Forum and learned how the Church whose zealots destroyed most of the vestiges of pagan Rome accidentally preserved much of what is left to us today.

In their search for good foundations, the stones of partially covered Roman temples and buildings served earlier Christians well so that many chapels were built right on top preserving the artifacts below.  After excavation, many of these churches are now high and dry like ornaments atop the massive colonnades.  The area of the Forum was originally a mosquito infested swamp in the Tiber River flood plain.  This then was an early land reclamation project in which the swamp was drained and maintained by a sophisticated system of sewers.  Not wanting to waste these structures and having lots of prisoners to deal with as the armies of Rome conquered the known world, the sewers doubled as holding prisons and dungeons for the vanquished awaiting their ultimate fate, perhaps down the street at the Coliseum.

We were transported back to the first century as we descended into the sewer-dungeon where Simon Peter and Paul were held prisoner for preaching their heretical new Christian religion, threatening the position of the god-king Roman Caesar.  A list of many prisoners who met their demise in this sad but now holy place is posted above the pillar where the two saints were chained. The various methods of dispatch are chronicled including beheading, crucifixion, and, my personal favorite, “left to rot.”  As the story goes, the two disciples were terrific preachers.  They converted their jailers to Christianity and they released them.  The jailers were promptly made Christian martyrs themselves for their deed.  Like a chase scene in a cowboy movie, Peter and Paul split up to confuse the pursuit.  Paul beat it to the east to the Adriatic coast for an escape to Asia minor.  Peter went south down the Appian Way, and so did we.

We passed through the old city wall at the San Sebastian Gate and proceeded down the Appian Way to the very spot where Peter’s egress was halted when he encountered Christ heading toward Rome.  This prompted the famous question, “Quo vadis?”  Christ’s reply that he was going to Rome to be crucified signaled Peter’s obligation to return.  The stones of the Appian Way testified to this meeting since the footprints of Jesus were left impressed in the granite pavers.  As was the Catholic church’s custom when such a miracle was encountered, a chapel was erected over this site in the original the roadway.  Commonly known as the “Quo Vadis Chapel,” the “actual” footprints have been removed to another church and replaced here with facsimiles.  Therefore, we renamed it “The Little Chapel of the Fake Footprints.”
There is a place on another of Rome’s hills where the territory of four separate nations can be seen.  Occupying this high spot in Rome are the Fourtain Embassy and the headquarters of the Knights of Malta, each a sovereign extension of their respective countries.  The great wooden door of the Maltese palazzo is secured with an ancient lock which accepts a key with a diameter as large as a thumb.  Putting an eye to the keyhole, one can see a beautifully sculpted  garden with a crushed stone path.  At the perimeter of the garden, the path leads to a hedge pruned into a perfect arch.  This provides a frame for Michelangelo’s dome of St. Peter’s Church centered in the distance at the Vatican, the fourth sovereign land in sight.

One of the most moving sites not commonly anticipated on a tour of Rome was the “Fosse Adreatine.”  Transported forward to the twentieth century in the Wayback, we entered a solemn memorial to martyrs of the second world war.  In 1943, the Italians attempted to withdraw from the Axis Alliance which led to the German occupation of Rome.  Sixteen resistance fighters ambushed a German column and killed thirty-three Nazi soldiers.  So enraged was Hitler that he ordered ten Romans executed for each German life lost.  Three hundred thirty- five Roman citizens were brought to these tuffa caves, machine gunned, then buried as the caves were exploded hoping to cover evidence of the deed.  Eventually excavated, the corpses were recovered and laid to rest in a mausoleum built on the site and the caves restored as a memorial to these victims and to the Jewish victims of the Nazi holocaust.  This is truly modern Holy Ground.

_ The Wayback Machine sped us back to the time of the crusades as we visited the Truth Stone (Bocca della Verita) resting on the porch of the church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin not far from St. Paul’s beautiful cathedral.  A large, tan, disk-shaped stone, 6-8 feet in diameter and several inches thick, a frightening, surrealistic face has been cut out or eroded out of its center like a giant Halloween pumpkin.  The mouth is just large enough that a hand can pass through it.  Made famous to many Americans in the 1950’s movie, “A Roman Holiday,” it is said that if one tells a lie while the hand is in its mouth, the hand will be bitten off.  Crusaders commonly used this technique to test the fidelity of their wives as they returned from crusades in the Holy Lands of the Middle East.  It is less clear if any of the crusaders themselves were thus tested.
At the Vatican, preparations were bustling everywhere for the coming Jubilee Holy Year, an event which is now celebrated every twenty-five years.  Absolution can be obtained through acts of penitence which include passing through special doors which remain plastered over in the interim at Rome’s four major basilicas, St. Peter’s, St. Paul’s, Santa Maria Maggiore, and San Giovanni in Laterno.  In the Vatican treasury, the ceremonial picks the Popes used to break the doors open and the trowels to plaster them closed from each of the previous Jubilees can be viewed, each with its rich compliment of walnut sized jewels.  A jeweled pick or a perhaps an electric cattle prod may be needed to get through the expected crowds next year.  The Vatican has built underground parking to accommodate 1,100 buses that will bring the extra twenty million pilgrims expected next year.

Our heads were spinning as we were transported back to the coast and the late twentieth century in the gathering dusk.  We were exhausted by the sheer volume of the day, feeling that fatigue known only to us time travelers who have felt the strain of space-time compression.  We must go back to fill in for ourselves some of the richness possessed by this ancient city at a more leisurely pace.  But, what a first day!  We were the envy of our shipmates after our “Rome in a Day” tour with Carlo and his Wayback Machine.”

Dan Johnson 
Ft Worth, TX