Sinners, repent!

first_imgThe piazza was crawling with women. I would have felt like a kid in a candy store, had they not all been wearing habits. It was a muted rainbow of black, white, blue and brown veils waving in the wind, as the young women alternately giggled and cheered. They reminded me of the teens in clips of the first Beatles concerts, both in their giddiness and in the sense that they properly belonged in some different era. But the man inspiring their enthusiasm was not from Liverpool. He was the frail, octogenarian leader of a billion Catholics. And his fans had come not just to revel, but to repent as well, in a city which melds reveling and repentance like few others. The Wednesday morning Papal audience is usually the high point of a trip to Rome for the pilgrimtourist. But this week was different. This was Settimana Santa – Holy Week, the crescendo of the Christian calendar. Wednesday was only the beginning of a string of church services at St Peter’s. It was my fifth trip to Rome, so the wideeyed wonder that marks the firsttime visitor had eased a bit. The list of must-see sites that had governed my first visits – the Vatican museums, the Piazza di Spagna, the Forum – gave way to the aimless wandering through which Rome truly reveals herself. More than any other time of the year, Holy Week sees a mixing of holiday and pilgrimage. Men and women in clerical garb make their way through groups of university students on spring break, camerawielding tourist packs, and Clark Griswold-esque families following a tight program from the Trevi Fountain to Piazza dei Populi. Yet in the face of this relentless movement, this city conserves its secrets in shadows and quiet light. Nineteenth Century pastel buildings crowd narrow streets, with angles that even at the height of day frustrate the sun. The calmness is never totally overcome. Whether holiday or pilgrimage, I can never come through Rome without a visit to the Spanish steps. From the top of the steps, one can see the dome of St Peter’s and the white marble heights of the monument to Vittorio Emmanuele, the father of the modern Italian state. After a moment reflecting on the skyline, I stroll down to the Cappuccin Church, known for the macabre display of centuries-old monastic bones in its crypt. In it, skeletons in monastic robes stand watch over the inscription ‘What you are, we once were, and what we are, you too will be’. The guitars are just out of earshot. Of Rome’s many layers, faith would seem to have been squeezed by the tectonic shifts of politics and culture: the former with the unification of Italy and the end of the Papal States in 1870s, and the latter in an ongoing struggle between tradition and progress. This means a richness, one that lives in each step across the cobbled stones of Campo dei Fiori in the southern part of the city centre, where I spend the late afternoon. There is nothing reserved here – all is sound and movement, swirling around the ancient figure of a hooded Giordano Bruno, clutching a book in both hands. His head is bowed, toward the Vatican, but in judgement rather than reverence. His judgement is on the Vatican authorities who had him burned for his theological ‘errors’ at a stake set in that very place. Yet now it seems – with the Enlightenment perhaps vindicating his obstinacy – he should be looking up and gloating about history’s judgement. That such a statue stands in Rome’s centre suggests the uneasy relationship that remains between the city’s temporal and spiritual leaders. I make my way south from the city centre, keeping my map in my bag, wondering which of the city’s four hundred churches will appear before me around the next curve. After a day of wandering, following the Pope’s morning audience, I find relief from the hordes across the river to the south, in the Trastevere section of the city – so named for its location across the Tiber River, or ‘Tevere’. In the Piazza di Santa Maria in Trastevere, lights blink on to meet the twilight. Tables spill out of restaurants along with smells that will capture not just the stomach but the soul. The Piazza is alive with a spirit very different from St Peter’s in the morning. Replete with habits of a different sort, it is more of revelling than repentance. Around the fountain at its centre, carefully coiffed young Italian men summon their charms to woo scarlet-haired goddesses. These women will catch your eye and vanish like dreams so intoxicating it hurts to wake up. While this goes on, the Church of Santa Maria rises up in the square’s southwest corner. Its face is darkened with age, and with the thick blackness of modernity that hangs in the air. The church is open late during Holy Week. Inside, in dark corners defined by clusters of flickering flame, searching souls kneel alone. Their moving lips suggest that on this night, in this place, solitude may be more complicated than it first appears. Curious passers–by wander in. Some step purposefully, as if to assert themselves. For others, steps falter for fear of violating something – some space from another time. One woman dressed for a night out makes her way up the aisle, craning her neck at the carvings on the ceiling as if in a museum. Then she slips into an empty pew. Light flickers on golden mosaics, multiplying the force of the flame. She sits quietly.ARCHIVE: 6th week TT 2004last_img read more