The shaded stone steps of the Basilica S. Agostino still radiate heat from the day and a pigeon pecks at the crumbs from my gelato cone. My legs ache from walking miles over cobblestones in winding zigs and zags and sometimes circles. From the river at the Trastevere shopping district I made an almost complete circle of the center city. I meandered to the Pantheon, the Trevi fountain, the Spanish Steps, then over to the Piazza del Popolo, then a quick subway ride to the Coliseum. I walked around the Forum, over through the park of the Domus Aurea, then back to the Trevi fountain, finally resting here in Piazza di S. Agostino not far from the Pantheon.
I notice a tourist with a guide book heading behind me into the Basilica. With curiosity, I poke my head through the doors. I am enticed into the sanctuary by breathtaking beauty and the relief of cool air. The interior is made entirely of rose, blue, cream and black marble, with bright blue vaulted ceiling, white sculpted figures of angels, gold decorations and magnificently painted frescos in soft pastel hues. It’s easy to imagine in the time, before air conditioning and modern living, especially in the heat of the Italian summer, that I might fall to my knees in religious ardor in such a luxurious and soothing architectural embrace. The structure naturally sends me forward to the alter, a point of focus at the intersection of the cross that makes up the floor plan. I muse at the display of wealth, and the blessing of the Church in supporting centuries of great artists and art work, as well as the preservation of numerous ancient structures. But I also think of what was repressed and replaced with the growth of the patriarchal religion.
Even so, in this city that is the seat of the Roman Catholic church, an unconquered architectural homage to pre-Christian religion has rested at the center of the city for over 2,000 years.
The Pantheon is the gem of Rome, with an immense dome that is the largest such structure made of brick, without supports. Modern architects admit they’d be hard pressed to recreate such a thing. The dome suggests the top of a perfect globe which could rest inside the vast expanse of the building, and at the very top of the dome a large oculus, or opening, bathes the large interior with soft light. This opening must have served a practical, as well as symbolic, purpose. Around the parameter of the space, the same width, 142 feet, as the height to the oculus, are alters in numerous directions.
I’ve read about the superimposing of Christian myths and rituals over the old religions as a way to convert, but never have I seen it demonstrated so poignantly as in the Pantheon, renamed the church of Saint Mary and the Martyrs by the Roman Catholic Church. I notice the name didn’t stick. Perhaps I am reading something into this here, but the metaphor of the feminine seems pretty blatantly illustrated by the vast womb like space with a opening. Only, this womb births us into the heaven, out of our earthly womb. In the context of this architectural metaphor, the 2,000 years of superimposed dedication to Christian martyrs, statues, an alter, relics, seem completely superfluous. The feminine principle overpowers, an unwavering truth beneath the surface attempts to mask or reattribute the spiritual symbols. A plaque suggest the structure was a temple dedicated to Venus and Mars, and the emperor, created using Pythagorean principles.
Strangely, superfluous or not, the mixed in Christianity somehow doesn’t clash, the through line of feminine spirituality finds expression in the abundance of paintings and sculptures throughout Italy, dedicated to the biblical Mary. Paintings of her often pictured alone, as well as with the Christ child in her arms. Sometimes she is pictured standing, in blue and red with the glow around her. It’s not difficult to imagine the funneling of the sacred feminine, the goddess devotion, into the image of Mary, and then also, Mary as mother, virgin and mother of the divine, or perhaps goddess religions also, in a way, as mother to Christianity itself.
I wouldn’t mind however, seeing this structure as it originally was, without bleeding statues of Jesus, the creepy relics and images of martyrs. There are thousands of Churches, why not one temple without martyrdom and masculine superiority? We could raise our eyes to the blazing and beautiful light above and imagine the soul of the sun and blue sky radiating into our hearts. We could clasp hands with flanking community members, connecting around a circle of hundreds, maybe thousands. From within the safety of this round, spacious, sunbathed temple, we could stand in a balanced devotion to the principles of inclusivity, enlightenment and community, the balance of separate and together, masculine and feminine. Interestingly, while standing in this way the posture of each body takes the shape of a cross. But I digress.
I’m back on the streets of Rome looking for a stylish present for my husband. Its a good place to be stylish. Romans are beautiful, they dress impeccably and do urbanism with much more artistry than Americans. Even the middle aged man on the park sleeping on the bench is stylish, as he nods off, he cools his sweaty foot by resting it on top of his leather shoe. But it’s gritty here too. At the corner of Dior and Gucci a dark skinned man roasts chestnuts, a line of street vendors with purses race down the street hotly pursued by caribinieri, while tourists lick multi colored cones of gelato with disinterest. The oppressive heat makes us indifferent and sends us flocking into Gelaterias and to cool alleyways with misting, umbrella covered tables. I find myself wandering, half delirious, among the crowds, caught in a wave of walking humanity, looking for a cool place to rest. Gelateria di Roma boasts 150 flavors, and I brave the multilingual crowds, catching snippets of German, French and English, to march proudly out with two scoops, coffee and lemon. It’s not very good Gelato, not silky and smooth, but it is cool and sweet. The open doors of air conditioned shops cool me in intervals as I wander to Piazza Novano, where a large shaded fountain draws admirers.
After hours of walking, I eagerly devour a bag of fresh yellow plums and apricots. As the sun descends I shower and rest my feet, looking forward to my last supper in Italy. Ciao bella.