As almost everyone who visits Rome notes, the real fascination of this city is its layers–one civilization piled on top of another.
At the Vatican excavations, as you weave your way underground, you see the Roman tombs at the bottom (1st century AD), the Christian church built by the emperor Constantine over what was rumored to be the site of St. Peter’s grave in the middle (4th century AD), and then the current San Pietro (16th century) on top.
Walking through the narrow passageways, peering into the pre-Christian tombs that once sat on top of the ground, you see remnants of that civilization: urns, graffiti, family names carved over entrances. These remnants were preserved because Constantine chose to take the top off a great a hill and bury the tombs beneath its earth to form the foundation for his church; the guide points out the columns and walls of that foundation. And above you, through thick glass tondos, you can look straight up into the nave of Saint Peter’s basilica; you can even see the famous Bernini baldocchino above the altar.
In the middle of the city, with medieval streets on three sides and the busy, modern Corso Vittorio Emanuele II on the fourth, sits Largo Argentina, a block-square excavation with four layers of civilization represented, from the fourth to the first century BC. At one corner are the steps on which Julius Caesar is thought to have been assassinated. At the south end is a sanctuary for homeless cats. Buses and trams race by, and tourists, eager to get to Campo di Fiori to the west or Piazza Venezia to the east, often pass it by as just another Roman ruin.
At the basilica of San Clemente, just down the road from the colosseum, you can tour the Roman temple on which the ninth century church was built.
Everywhere you look, there are walls, columns, bits and pieces–although that seems too trivializing, when the bits and pieces are two stories high and several feet thick.
Perhaps there are other cities like this, where the remnants of centuries are casually accepted, where walking down a main street and having to make your way around a first century column or a third century obelisk is commonplace, but I don’t know them. I’ve visited Istanbul, which wears its many hundreds of years of history proudly but seems to prefer its sense of modernity, and Jerusalem, whose glorious old city is contained within walls and whose politics color our sense of history. I’ve been to Isfahan, but many years ago, when western travelers were still welcome in Iran and the magnificent mosques were available to all; I don’t know what that city would offer now. But I have never seen a city like Rome, where the very old coexists so casually and comfortably with the very new, the Roman remains with electric buses and recycle bins. I will never, I think, really get used to discovering yet another golden 13th century–or 9th century, or 4th century–mosaic as I duck my head into an unknown church.
We are on the downhill side of our visit now, with only a bit over three weeks to go. We are struggling to fit in visits to Naples and Pisa and Lucca, a day at Tivoli, another in the Alban hills. There is so much we haven’t seen. We miss our family–our daughters, their spouses, our grandson–terribly.
We miss our friends and our house and our dog. We even miss, occasionally, fast food and cars. (We gave in and ate at a Burger King here the other night–purely, as my husband says, as an experiment, to see what it was like. It was like Burger King.) But when we leave, we will miss Rome with an ache that I can already feel. We will miss showing off “our” city (although we still speak very, very little of the language); we will miss the neighborhood pasticceria and macelleria, where the baker and the butcher greet us with smiles. We will miss the opportunity to use our hard-earned ability to navigate the bus system adeptly. Mostly, we will miss the constant sense of discovery–the excitement of knowing that around every corner there is (or at least could be) something absolutely wonderful.
But even as I write that sentence I realize: This is a way of seeing. In Rome, the layers of civilization, the art, the beauty are visible. But why not assume that around every corner of every city there is (or at least could be) something absolutely wonderful? Perhaps not something centuries old, perhaps not something painted by Caravaggio or designed by Michelangelo. But who knows? There is so much to be discovered still.