And now, time for our language lesson, and this one will even be in English! Ready? Define: "cathedral." Go ahead, I'll even give you some time...
...Got it? Of course you knew that the Cathedral of St. John Lateran is defined as the official seat of the Pope, right? Don't tell me you thought that St. Peter's at the Vatican (miles away on the other side of Rome) was where the seat of the Pope is located. Well, okay, that's what I thought too. Turns out that "cathedral" is perhaps one of the most mis-used words you can find.
A cathedral is, by definition, the church that serves as the official seat of the local bishop, and who is the bishop of Rome? Right, none other than the Pope. Back when Constantine was busy making Christianity an officially sanctioned Big Deal, he built San Giovanni as the first Christian church in Rome. From its beginning until 1870, it was the location where all popes were crowned. As Rome lost power in the Middle Ages, the Church lost power too, until early in the 14th century the papacy moved from Rome to Avignon in France for a period of 70 years.
Upon the Pope's return from France (just in time for the Renaissance! :-), the official residence became St. Peter's at the Vatican, but the official seat of the Bishop of Rome, and therefore the Pope, remains at St. John. Not that you'd be able to tell anything special about the building right now, since its facade is completely covered by scaffolding and sheeting as it is being cleaned and restored for the upcoming Jubilee year of 2000. However, the small building across the piazza, which reportedly holds the staircase descended by Christ after his condemnation in Pilate's house, is available for viewing; and if any of that makes you thirsty, there are plenty of vendors willing to sell you a can of Coke for three dollars just a few steps from the front door of the church.
...everyone back on the bus? Good...
...on to Santa Maria Maggiore (sorry if I didn't relate the news that you'd have to bring lots of bagged lunch on the bus tour, as well as good walking shoes). Let's see if we can do it in 250 words or less -- Santa Maria Maggiore, built when (as the story goes) the Virgin appeared to Pope Liberius telling him to build a church where there would be found a patch of snow. In August.
With freshly-fallen snow having been discovered on one of the highest points in Rome, Liberius drew up the plans himself and the basilica was constructed. To this day, every August 5th a special mass occurs wherein "snowflakes" fall from the ceiling and land upon the faithful. The designation Maggiore means that this is the primary church dedicated to Mary in the city, out of seemingly dozens to choose from including the one just around the corner from our apartment in Trastevere.
The mosaics along the nave are well-preserved, brilliantly colored, immensely ancient, and mandatory viewing material, via slide images, for art and art history students. They can easily be seen in most survey of art history textbooks, so you'll forgive me if I don't write the whole essay here.
I'd much rather mention the tomb of Gian Lorenzo Bernini, whose self-portrait graces the Italian 50,000 lire note and who is buried here where the snow falls every August. Oh yeah, Santa Maria Maggiore also has a Sistine Chapel, but it is not quite as heavily trafficked by tourists as the other more well-known one across town.
Next, our well-heeled host Jeffrey takes us back onto the bus to travel north through the Borghese Park, where among other sights to see (later) is the Museo Borghese, one of the treasure houses of Italian art and recently reopened after a nearly scandalous 14-year "restoration."
We walk along the Borghese to the Piazza del Popolo, traditionally one of the main entrances to the Old Walled City and certainly a grand entrance by any means. How could it not be, when you walk under the imposing walls, through a portal, and into a piazza where you see three streets fan out, each leading south to different points throughout the city. We walk up the stairs next to Santa Maria del Popolo, home of two well-known but out-of-the-way Caravaggio paintings (later, have patience!), and along the terrace to Trinita dei Monti and the Spanish Steps.
The Spanish Steps, you should know, are not called the "Spanish" steps by Romans. The area itself is home to French and Spanish academies and official residences, and the Italians don't take to anyone laying claim on their turf. The staircase which separates the French and Spanish encroachers is referred to as the Scala dei Triniti Monti, in honor of (what else) the church that is at the top of the stairs.
At the bottom of the steps is the house where the poet Keats died after coming to Rome to (I swear) find a "cure for consumption." Fat chance in this town. But tuberculosis beat consumption to the punch (rim shot, please), and now Keats is buried in the Protestant Cemetery to the south, where even until relatively recently in the Christian era, burials took place at night so as not to be disturbed by Christian hecklers.
If you're feeling fashionable, go to the Spanish Steps and walk along Via Condotti or other nearby sidestreets to view the collections of Gucci, Versace, Calvin Klein, and dozens of other big names in fashion that you haven't heard of until you really tried.
Have you noticed the pace of our tour picking up a bit? I did. When we left after lunching at the tomb of Cecilia Metella, we were a full hour or so behind schedule, but like any well-heeled host, Jeffrey found ways of picking up steam and adjusting the schedule as the day went on, and now we were walking swiftly across town towards the river and the Mausoleum of Augustus.
Which sits next to the Ara Pacis, a modern sort of glass and concrete building constructed by Mussolini as a monument to Augustus -- and Mussolini. How...conveeeeenient. When you're living in the neo-Christian era and burials are not allowed in the city limits, you just have to make do. Or, if you're a guy like Augustus, you just make an exception for yourself and put your tomb wherever you want. Further, if you're named Mussolini and you want to show everyone how important you are, you link yourself up with a guy like Augustus, and suddenly you get instant name credibility, or so you think.
No, unlike at the Baths of Caracalla, there were no operas performed in the Mausoleum of Augustus. Just symphony recitals.
The bus driver, who we left way up at Piazza del Popolo, now arrives a mile's walk later at the Mausoleum of Augustus to again pick us up and take us
----- WHISK! -----
past St. Peter's and the Vatican, and it's a good thing I've already been there (a couple of times) because the time spent reading this sentence is about how much time we spent driving past it today. Lookout for tour groups walking across the street! :-)
Up the hill of the Gianicolo for our finishing touch, one of the more spectacular in-town views of Rome from one of the highest hills at the western edge of the city. From here we can now see, or find the approximate area of, many of the sights we skimmed on today's bus ride. Our apartment in Trastevere is to the right and just below us. Vatican to the left, Pantheon ahead, ancient footprints are everywhere. We'll have two months, and then some, to call it home.
Tonight, as an intro to our group study (and maybe as a reward for all the walking) we get fed at the restaurant located on the ground level of the University of Washington's building. The heat and humidity are still sufficient in early October to make me want to take three showers a day and change clothes right after leaving home, but by evening it cools and we gather at Ristorante da Pancrazio for a fine repast and a look ahead.
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