Shadows Turned To Stone

We have class in the city today.
Not yet spellbound and not quite thrilled, we follow our professor from bus stop to train station to street corner, en masse and looking like tourists. There is surge of Italians in the metro station and we are corned and cling to the worn metal poles with white knuckled grips as train stops with a jerk and begins with a tug. Termini. Republica. Finally Collesseo. We are moved by the tide of people, out of the train and up the dirty steps, one mob of walkers until we emerge from underground sweating and smelling like rubber. Outside the rabble of businessmen and tourists disperse, as a river runs into the sea.

I look up.
“Oh my,” I think to myself, “The Coliseum. Its right here. 100 meters away and standing tall. I think it would look much more grand were it not for the scaffolding and tarps covering the one side.” My eyes slide down, panning from the sky to the sidewalk below. “They should get rid of the fences as well,” I ponder, “ They are hardly picturesque.”
But today is not the day for the Coliseum, and so we walk on. We walk up the street. We pass excavated ruins of 1st century homes that Dr. Szabo insists are really not impressive. “Oh just you wait,” she says, “We shall see truly amazing excavations another day.” I imagine her tapping her foot as the crowd of young adults stops to take pictures despite her advice. A hundred flashes of false light mix with the streaming sun. I turn away and look again at the Coliseum, now behind me and slightly downhill.
“I suppose the scaffolding is necessary,” I think to myself as I notice the stone crumbling and the precarious balance of the upper left section of the great round wall. “Perhaps the fences are a good idea,” I posit. Perhaps.

We walk on. Down a street. I know we are going to the Basillica San Clemente and in my mind I envision a large church as blatant and hard to miss as the Coliseum itself. We stop in the middle of the sidewalk and I look to my left. Basilica di S. Clemente the wooden sign above the yellow door reads. Gold letters on black paint. “Well then,” I silently shrug, “Here we are.”

I tour the church alone.

We all do. Each of us alone in the dome-less church full of frescos and mosaics hundreds of years old. St. Clement was tied to an anchor and drowned. A martyr. The church is laden with symbolism and anchors. Gold tiles reflect and refract the light of the sun shining through the open doors. It is nearly midday and the nave is alive with the silent milling of people, tourists and pious Catholics alike.

Sitting on a wooden bench, I let my eyes roam over the ornate ceiling. Candles flicker in the September breeze and the echoing room is filled with the scent of incense. I roughly sketch the mosaic of the Crucifixion on the vault of the apse, taking notes of the colours and images high above. It is our assignment for the day. “Take notes,” Dr. Szabo had said, “You will need them for your paper due on Monday.” And so I sketch and I write and I take notes. Thoughts and impressions I don’t dissect before I record, and before I am through, we must leave. We leave not by going out, but by going down.

There is more here than meets the eyes.
The Basilica is a 12th century church built atop a 4th century Christian meeting place, built atop a 1st century pagan temple. There are many steps to the bottom.
In America our oldest building are 400 years old, and even then we hide our artifacts and floors behind glass. In Italy their new buildings are older than our old ones, and yet even what they consider ancient is not hidden behind mirrors and disinfected artificial lights. There were lights below in the crypts…but they were archaeologist’s lights that sent up a pale cold haze from the corners. That was all.
The air is damp and the stone feels saturated with both years and memory. I touch a brick column and the plaster crumbles, leaving my ands covered in wet dust. I don’t want to breathe in too deeply. I am afraid I will such the life out of this place.
I sit on a step to the alter for some time. Looking. Seeing. Thinking. There are rows of columns in the dark, an altar at the end, and broken frescos on the walls. The plaster is chipped and worn. Nothing is perfect. Nothing shines. It feels inexplicably real.
There is a corridor with no light and the sound of running water. I follow the narrow passage way, hunched forward and quickly walking skipping and tripping down roughly hewn stairs. “…shadows spread, deepened and stayed. After thousands of years we are still strangers to darkness…” (A. Dillard)

The Mithraic temple is black and cave-like smelling of must and dank air. There are grates where animals were sacrificed and men were bathed in thoe blood of the cow. Brick Walls are wet. Tile floors uneven. And the ceiling is stained with smoke frm fire. The flames of long ago.

I hurry through the temple. It is chilling to walk along into small rooms of darkness and let your imagination take flight about what once occurred where you stand. Rushing, I emerge from the depth and return to the top. To the Basillica San Clemente, where most of the group are waiting outside under a palm tree, beside a line of parked motorbicycles. I am just in time. It is 12:30 and the Basilica closes down completely at half past noon. It is time for a siesta.

We walk away, down the street and catch a bus outside the Coliseum. That is all the class we have today. Some other girls and I take some euros and go out into the city to buy pizza for lunch. After eating our fill in the lest touristy ristorante, we walk down the streets to the Piazza Venezia we have become so familiar with this past week. “Has it really only been a week?” I think to myself, as we effortlessly navigate the crowded streets and crazy traffic. “This feels so natural.” We climb to the top of the Victtore Emmanuelle II Monument constructed in 1912. High up, we photograph the rooftops of the city, the statues hanging off the roof of the monument, and laughingly we take pictures of ourselves with Coliseum in the background.

The Italians don’t like Victor Emmanuel Monument because a medieval village and part of capitol hill was destroyed in order to build this lavish and tastelessly ornate piece of architecture, and for that reason, neither do I.

But the Italians also do not like it because it is modern.
After all, they are happy to tell you, it is only 100 years old…


  1. Hey Kate. I am loving your Rome reflections! Lopenek


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