April 22nd, 2010
The place for the ancient ruins of everyday is not in Rome, where politics and economics conspired to keep only the biggest and best, but ancient Ostia, a short ride on the Metro line called “Lido.” Ostia Antica is just over two miles from modern Ostia, on the fringe of marshes that boarder Fiumicino airport. The history of the city is a sort of mini-saga. In imperial times it was overshadowed by a deeper port area just to the north, but keep a bit of the lucrative business of hauling goods to Rome (empty warehouses and stockpiles of roughly finished marble columns bear witness to this). In some portside hostel, St. Monica died, as her son, Augustine records in his Confessions; like many of the wealthier class, they still used Ostia as the embarkation point for passage to Northern Africa. But by the 6th century the city was abandoned, always a good thing for archeologists since only mud and debris had to be cleared to uncover the city during the 19th and 20th centuries. A fortress town was begun next to the ancient site but malaria kept the population scant. When the military-focused Cardinal delle Rovere soon to be Pope Julius II) was given charge of this town in the 15th century, he constructed a sturdy-looking castle from the piles of marble and bricks in the area as well as a picturesque three-street town and city wall, still popular for weddings. I arrive at the door of the castle at the stroke of 10am for one of its infrequent openings. We are first told to explore the ground floor, its cramped rooms having served, over the years, as both a barracks and prison. The thick castle walls form a small triangular courtyard about four stories high, an outwork supports a massive tower that doubles the castle’s height. Although the grand staircase is beautifully decorated, inside a drum-shaped room at the top of the tower, a baking oven and a toilet stand just a few feet apart – both built into the wall. It must have been a Spartan life for the troops. An hour later, I join a small group who has signed up to tour four recently restored villas in a posh neighborhood of Ostia Antica. The most spectacular one comes last, the aptly named “House of the Yellow Walls.” The color is so bright and modern-seeming that when I look through an ancient window and see a jet taking off from Fuimicino, it really doesn’t seem out of place
April 30th, 2010
A visitor tells me she has always admired Francesca Romana, Rome’s 15th Century saintly widow. Together we sit in the shade of her church, Santa Maria Nova, in the Forum, waiting and hoping it will have an afternoon opening so we can see her tomb. Francesca, who came from wealth, was a tireless worker for the sick and poor of Rome and especially appreciated during Rome’s predictable summers of plague and malaria. She was the mother of six children and cared for her husband after he returned to Rome weak and wounded from years of commanding the papal troops in battle. Upon his death, Francesca founded a religious community in the family palazzo; it continues her work to this day. A crystal coffin displays her skeleton; one boney finger keeping marked a page in her prayer book, reminding the astute visitor that once her husband had summoned her four times before she could finish her prayers. Now she rests in peace, dressed in the habit of the community she founded but with shoes on her feet, ready if duty calls. After we leave the tomb, I glimpse at the post cards for sale and realize that this church houses one of the world’s most ancient icons. TV commentator and art historian, Sr. Wendy Beckett, featured the startling image of a somber, white-faced Mary, eyes crossed and lips pursed, on the cover of her recent book “Encounters with God: In Quest of the Ancient Icons of Mary.” The icon was painted, using encaustic technique, around 420 for a church in the Forum. In 590, it was carried in solemn procession around the city to rout the plague (which it did) and, after an earthquake in 847, it was placed in a new church built on a tranquil knoll in the Forum, just behind the ruins of the Temple of Venus and Rome. Subsequent fire, barbarians, and three layers of unremarkable icons placed on top have not affected the dignity and mystery of this mother’s face (though her child is a shadow of itself). As with so many treasures of Rome, you must know the hidden place and must find the right person. For us, it is Peter, the sacristan at Santa Maria Nova. He is relieved when none of us has a camera because, he says, the icon has been through enough already; a blinding flash aimed at what is, after all, a colored wax painting is out of the question. Behind a door with no sign, reigns the satisfyingly large icon, which was even larger before later and less memorable images covered it over. The ancient image was rediscovered during a 1950 restoration. Now it is housed in a shadow-box faced with protective UV glass and lit from within – safe at last. As I return home, I’m greeted by a beautifully cleaned up Fountain of Moses. Its infamous squat statue of the patriarch gleams after a two year restoration. Now, in the afternoon sun, its daily natural spotlight, tourists stop in their tracks to get a picture. But for me, a few quiet moments gazing at the hidden and venerable icon that saved Rome is quite enough.