Protestants and Pyramid

The pyramid of Cestius, built in the first century, is the first thing you see when you get off the bus at Porta San Paolo in Testaccio. Crossing the cobblestone street, you go down the road to the right to the entrance of Rome’s famous Protestant Cemetery, the final resting place since the early 19th century for much of the well-to-do Anglo-American ex-pat community

Entering the Campo Cestio is like stepping back in time, though not in the usual way you feel like you’ve stepped back in time in Rome. While it is true that there’s an ancient pyramid lurking to the left throughout your visit to the graveyard, the atmosphere is far more Romantic than Classical. Such a graveyard would not be out of place in England or older parts of the American East Coast–Mt. Auburn in Cambridge, perhaps, or Highgate in London. The sentimentality is thick on the ground here among the maudlin marbles.


The most famous statue here is  Angel of Grief, which the sculptor William Wetmore Story made in 1894 for himself and his wife. It has been much copied in cemeteries since. 

Nearby is the very moving memorial for Rosa Bathurst, who died tragically at the age of 16. She is depicted being received by an angel on one side of the tomb; on the other side, another angel holds an inverted torch and a drooping poppy from which emerges a butterfly, classical images of death and resurrection. 

Close to this is the elaborate monument of Thomas Jefferson Page, a Virginian who was, according to his stone, “Captain, U.S.N. and C.S.N., Explorer, Christian Gentleman.” after the Civil War, Page emigrated to Argentina and then to Rome. The sons of Confederate Veterans restored his monument recently, and I sighed a little unhappily at the battle flag they just had to stick there.

Behind these, alongside the ancient Autelian Wall that Mark’s the Cemetery’s border, is the tomb of Shelley.

In another part of the graveyard Keats is buried–easy to pick out for all the tourists around it snapping selfies. On the way over, you pass by the famous cat sanctuary, I Gatti Della Piramide, whose website gives a good overview of the shelter’s activities. There’s something pleasing about seeing all these cats, little living images of Bast and Sekhmet roaming at will at the foot of the Pyramid and occasionally leaping up to lounge on the poets’ lugubrious gravestones. Hail to thee, blithe spirits.


Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Behold the (Other) Man! Looking for Pilate 1: Rome, Scala Sancta

I have begun to work on a project about Pontius Pilate, that classical character plopped suddenly down into the Passion narrative, and the only human individual (besides Mary) singled out in the Creed. The scope of the project is still up in the air, but during my recent trip to Italy, I thought I would look for vestiges of the old Roman governor. You just never know what will turn up.  I had limited success with this half-hearted search, but still there was value to what I was able to see with my own eyes, and feel with my own knees.

In Rome, I made my way out to the Latern, which I had never seen before– it’s a large, impressive baroque church, fitting for the genuine cathedral of Rome, but given the city’s other glories, something of an afterthought on the tourist itinerry.  To me, the classicist, the most important thing at the Lateran are the large bronze doors that once graced the entrance to the Curia.

 Across the street, in a separate building that was once the old Lateran palace (San Lorenzo in Palatio), were the spolia I had in fact come to see, the Scala Sancta– the staircase of white marble from Lebanon that reputedly lead up to the praetorium in Jerusalem, and from the top of which Pilate would have addressed the crowds. Christ is said to have walked down this stairscase, dripping blood on the top step, the eleventh, and second.

Brought to Rome in the fourth century AD by St. Helena, when they were known as the Scala Pilati, the stairs have been the subject of devout veneration since. For centuries now, worshippers on their knees have ascended the 28 stairs, now covered in wood (what kind? I don’t know), and are granted a plenary indulgence for doing so. Even Luther climbed these tairs on his knees, as have countless others, past and present. Charles Dickens visited in the mid-nineteenth century, and condemned the practice in no uncertain terms: 

I never, in my life, saw anything at once so ridiculous, and so unpleasant, as this sight – ridiculous in the absurd incidents inseparable from it; and unpleasant in its senseless and unmeaning degradation. There are two steps to begin with, and then a rather broad landing. The more rigid climbers went along this landing on their knees, as well as up the stairs; and the figures they cut, in their shuffling progress over the level surface, no description can paint. Then, to see them watch their opportunity from the porch, and cut in where there was a place next the wall! And to see one man with an umbrella (brought on purpose, for it was a fine day) hoisting himself, unlawfully, from stair to stair! And to observe a demure lady of fifty-five or so, looking back, every now and then, to assure herself that her legs were properly disposed!

There were such odd differences in the speed of different people, too. Some got on as if they were doing a match against time; others stopped to say a prayer on every step. This man touched every stair with his forehead, and kissed it; that man scratched his head all the way. The boys got on brilliantly, and were up and down again before the old lady had accomplished her half-dozen stairs. But most of the penitents came down, very sprightly and fresh, as having done a real substantial deed which it would take a good deal of sin to counterbalance

This hot summer day, I stood before the holy stairs and watched thr throngs making their way up. Indeed, you have to pay to go in the building, and the young woman behind the counter looks alternately bored and annoyed with the crowds before her–occasionally she emits a loud SSHHH! 

Others like me are standing at the bottom of the stairs, wondering what to do. What does it mean if I get on my knees and start to go up? Will I be a believer at the end of it? A believer of what? The likelihood of these being the very stairs of Pilate is remote.  To kneel on them–is this not rank superstition, a willing suspension of reason for the sake of some hoped-for sweeping holy feeling? Or is this nothing more than a tourist activity, like kissing the Blarney Stone or taking a selfie in front of the Grand Canyon?

In the end, I climbed the stairs on my knees, and was surprised by the comfortable grooves in the wood. I listened to the murmering prayers of the others around me, most of them not speaking English. I tried not to race up, but to stay more or less on par with the nice Filipino man beside me–when he reached the top, there were tears in his eyes and, while I did not feel the need to weep myself, I was glad to witness the sincerity of his devotion. A Spanish family reached the top shortly afterward, and the mother whipped out her phone to take a picture of the four of them, all still on their knees. I got out of the way, not wanting to ruin their picture.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Notes on Hadrian’s Villa

 From the parking lot and ticket office, it’s a long, gradual hike up into Hadrian’s Villa, which is not actually in Tivoli but just outside it. Driving is really the best way to get here, although I did see one of the public buses, nearly empty, pull up to the entrance. 

The young French child in front of me lets his parents know that he does not care for the walk, and throughout the day, I will come across his parents jollying him along with far greater success than I could imagine having. At one point, the father sneaks behind a column and makes ghost sounds that reverberate through the cavernous edifice. The little boy laughs and laughs, never more so than when Daddy emerges and pretends to be terrified.  

We arrive first to Plastico, the enormous plaster model of that the villa looked like in its prime. A sprawling complex of buildings, now all in ruins, it is hard to get your head around. It is also very, very hot, and the shade in the building together with the whirring fans are small comfort. By the door, a cat lounges. I ask the guard what is il nome del gatto? She doesn’t know, but it is a girl, she says. She thinks. “Sabina,” she decides, the name of Hadrian’s wife.



Leaving Plastico and the shade, into the site I go, struck by the scale of the place and simply unable to forget the goddamned heat, which the pools of inaccessible water does nothing to alleviate.


At the the Canopus, the long cylindrical pool surrounded by statues that was meant to conjure up a Roman version of the Nile, the shade and water bring relief. Unsurprisingly, many visitors are gathered here, not just to get their breath but also to feed the fish. A turtle’s head emerges now and again by the crocodile statue on the far side.

I’m sure it was just as hot in Hadrian’s day, and in my search for shade I begin to really look at the trees throughout the Villa– the umbrella pines, the long rows of cypresses, and most impressively, the twisted ancient olives, that have seen far worse weather and far more of it than I ever will. They say there’s an oliver here over a thousand years old, and I believe it. Some of them will be here a thousand years hence, as will be the carp, the cats, and the turtles, no doubt, and perhaps even the children led along by doting parents.


Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Inscriptions in Sutri

In the town hall of Sutri, one sees many an ancient inscription cemented into the walls. Somewhere, sometime, somebody on the world-wide web will care about these, and so, my friend, this is for you.


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Facing Demons in Etruria

Out to Fiumcino airport I went, thinking it would be easier to deal with a car rental there and get on to the E80 to Cerveteri and Tarquinia to look at the Etruscan tombs. Alas, Avis at FCO was an infelix avis rather than a rara, a bad omen rather than a true friend, and the hassle and inefficiency of the autonoleggio process prefigured the next few hours on the roads around Rome. But truthfully, perhaps it was fault. What is it that Cavafy writes in “Ithaka“?

Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.

The fact is I was carrying with me this fear of driving in Italy, why I can’t say. I kept thinking to myself, It can’t be any worse than the Mass Pike. And then I’d think that that was no comfort at all.

Thus it was that, even though I had a large road-map for Central Italy, and had downloaded and printed several on-line maps of the specific locations I was going, when the attendant asked if I wanted a Garvin Nuvi to help with the navigation, I jumped at it. “Yes! Si! Please! Grazie!” I yelped, and then thought to ask, “Does it speak English?” Of course, she indicated, and fiddled with the device until a British woman’s voice began to speak. Ah, thinks I. Just the person to get me through the muddle of the Roman urban sprawl to my safe and comfortable classical sites. An authoritative Oxbridge accent, with modern technology and a fleet of satellites at its back, was all very comforting in its own self-assurance. Sort of like Margaret Thatcher. What could go wrong?

But first to find the car which, as it happens, was in Group A of Garage E, not Group E of Garage A, a thing one finds out only after much wheeling of a heavy suitcase up staircases and sweating and swearing. But no amount of profanity and gesticulation can help you put the car, once found, into reverse– for that you must eventually dig out the driver’s manual and figure out what it means to levare the collare of the leva di cambio.  Once you’ve done that, you plug in Maggie and let her gently guide you to the remote Etruscan past, a mere 19 kilometres away. How much is a kilometre, anyway? Who can say? Maggie knows. At this point, all I have to do is just sit back and obey.

I suppose when you’re on autopilot, as I was, there comes a time when you start to get suspicious. Are we going on the wrong road? Nah. These damned streets all have several names and numbers, it’s OK. But, um. Isn’t that town sort of south of the city, not north where Tuscany is? Maybe this is a faster route, even if it is more circuitous? And then the moment when it crashes in on you that, No, the machine is all screwed up and you are nowhere near where you want to be. This thing was more like Margaret Thatcher than I had originally thought.  So over to the side of the highway I pulled, and unplugged the Iron Lady. She had plenty of battery power stored up and continued to tell me insistently how very wrong I was for the next hundred kilometres of sobut by now I was charting my own course with the road map and this crude but effective syllogism: A. Cerveteri was on the sea, B. The sea was to the West, and so C. I should just keep driving with the sun in my eyes.

All in good time, I found myself far north of Rome making a big left turn and realizing that, somehow, if I stayed on this very road, I would reach Tarquinia. And it was hilly and tortuous and unclearly-marked and exceptionally beautiful to drive along this road and eventually to see aqueduct ruins alongside the highway and signs that pointed to the Necropoli di Monterozzi. With a sense of great accomplishment, I pulled over to the side of the road to park and may or may not have almost knocked over a bunch of Vespas–there’s no saying.

The necropolis is quite amazing, really. You pay a few euros for the ticket and a guidebook and off into the biggest, driest field you have ever seen you go. Here and there are doors into the tombs which, once you enter, are far cooler and damper than is comfortable. A steep staircase before you into a depth the sunlight has never seen.  As Catullus writes in Poem 3,

Qui nunc it per iter tenebricosum
illuc, unde negant redire quemquam.
at vobis male sit, malae tenebrae
Orci, quae omnia bella devoratis:

Now he goes along the shadowy road
there to the place from which they say nobody returns.
But a curse on you, evil shadows
of Orcus, who devour all beautiful things!

When you get to the bottom of the stairs, you press the button for the light and behold!  the painted tombs appear, replete with Etruscan revelers, banqueting, dancing, playing music.  Also we see death demons hovering about, with names like Orcus and Charun, who are joyful in their own way. 

 Again and again I descend from the hot Tuscan sun into the cool Etruscan ground to see these murals of lives long ago lived and deaths long ago mourned.  It was a circuitous route, to be sure, from Fiumcino to Monterozzi, but to see the colors at the end of the iter tenebricosum we must all travel was well worth the trip. 


Posted in Birds, Boston, Cemeteries, Classics, England, Italy, Language & Etymology, Music, Mythology, Oxford, Poetry, Rome, Sports & Games, Time | Leave a comment

The Most Dantean Thing I Saw in Florence

… was not Dante’s house, although I admired that it was on Via Dante Aligheri, and appreciated that the quotations from the Commedia carved in stone and set into the nearby buildings.

Inside the Casa is a Museo that, at 4 euros for entrance, cost 4 euros too much. Mostly posters with ots of text in Italian about obscure matters. Some reproduced florins spilling out of a “leather” purse.

Nor was the most Dantean thing the nearby church of Santa Margerita, “Dante’s Church,” where Dante married Gemma di Manetto Donati, and first saw Beatrice. Maybe. 

 Inside, it’s probably the least church-like church in Florence: many contemporary paintings– bad ones– of Dante looking at Beatrice. Music was being piped in, and not historically appropriate music, such as Gregorian chant, or even particularly religious music, just some weird “beautiful” elevator music.  

There was a crypt that may or may not have contained Beatrice’s mortal remains. Certainly it belonged to the Portinari family. Above is a shrine to Mary, and in front many hand-written supplications, though  to which lafy it is not clear (I didn’t look at any).
The most famous image of Dante in Florence is the painting by Domenico di Michelino (1417–1491) in the western wall of Florence’s Duomo of Dante holding the Comedy to instruct Florence with Hell, Paradise, and Heaven represented. Now the picture below is NOT mine, as i did not go into the Duomo on this trip, on account of the lines.


What I did do at the Duomo, and the Piazza dei Signoria, and San Lorenzo, and everywhere else the guidebooks recommend you should go, is watch vast hordes of tourists being rushed from site to site by group leaders with flags, like the souls before the Gates of Hell.


E io, che riguardai, vidi una ’nsegna
che girando correva tanto ratta,
che d’ogne posa mi parea indegna;

e dietro le venìa sì lunga tratta
di gente, ch’i’ non averei creduto
che morte tanta n’avesse disfatta.

And I, who looked again, beheld a banner,
Which, whirling round, ran on so rapidly,
That of all pause it seemed to me indignant;

And after it there came so long a train
Of people, that I ne’er would have believed
That ever Death so many had undone.

And that, even more than the cenotaph in Santa Croce below, was the most Dantean thing I saw in Florence.

Posted in Bible, Florence, Italy, Music, Poetry, Saints, Statues, Time, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

 Through Transpadene Gaul by Rail

In anticipation of a train trip from Milan to Lausanne recently, i looked into the history and geography of the area the Rommans knews as Transpadene Gaul, the northern part of Cisalpine Gaul across the Po but south of the Alps. I didn’t know much about the area, nor did the Romans really, so I sort of boned up on the geography is be passing along on the train.

Leaving Milan isn’t too charming, and I promptly fell asleep for about half an hour.

Passing along Lagio Maggiore


A Farewell to Arms, 1957

A Farewell to Arms, 1957

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment