Rome (cont.)

Rome Travel Blog

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            There is also something powerfully pagan about the tessellating bones, but just like so much else in Rome, the deity matters less than the devotion.  Egyptian obelisks which once oversaw the triumphs of Caesars are now mitered with crosses; I watch nuns walk by the crumbling temple of Vesta, and bearded Joves preside over every Last Judgment.  I stood today in the very place where crusades and inquisitions were ordered, but I have oddly never felt a city to be more ecumenical than Rome, except maybe Jerusalem, though my memories of that Holy City are quite well faded.  Here, risen from the Judean dust like the skeletons of Ezekiel, the Capuchin bones seem emblematic of the very mottled heart of Rome, which has beaten many different pulses since its eighth century BCE birth.
  Though Tiber and Palatine have always been “Rome,” they are no more the Eternal City than the bones on the wall are actually people.  What makes Rome is the Romans: humanity is the city’s soul.  The Capuchins, poor friars, seek to remind us that the soul is what matters.  That which gives life to the bones is the miracle, and whether we call that mind or soul doesn’t matter.
            Pope John Paul II saw the miraculous in the quotidian.  Did Mary reach down from Heaven and deflect an assassin’s bullet into his papal shoulder?  Sure she did.  And John Paul made ore saints in his two decades as Pope than were made in the prior five centuries.  His blue and gold crest, the colors of St. Peter, with a cross and an “M” only turned up twice on our tour today, and one was merely to mark his survival through a jubilee year.  While Barberini bees swarmed everywhere, and Gregory XIII’s dragon was ubiquitous, the temporal trappings of the church seemed of lesser importance to the latest late Pontifex.  Now, it would seem to me that John Paul’s real focus was people, the lifeblood of the Church, and not the porphyry and alabaster bones that give Christianity its physical foundation.  The Vatican itself is a vast composite of the remains of over one hundred popes, each of whom has left his mark on all that he wrought.  Make no mistake: these men will be remembered, as they have been for centuries, because of these physical traces left behind, but John Paul is one of only two people ever to be beatified fewer than five years post mortem (the other is Mother Teresa).
            Like the Popes, the Roman emperors left their bones strewn about the city: Constantine’s triumphal pelvis, Vespasian’s colossal skull, Trajan’s femur.  But nestled into a small niche in the Augustan forum is Julius Caesar’s pyre.  Behind a concrete wall sits a pile of stones where once, for a brief moment, the ashes of Rome’s first emperor were ruffled in a gust of hot breeze before being collected and removed from the walled city.  A legion of ants marches stolidly across the bare black rock, and the little sanctum is cooler than the surrounding expanse, shaded by the unornamented shelter.  Still, every April 21, Romans flock to this spot to leave flowers on their Emperor’s grave.
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            “Comme vous nous étions, comme nous vous seriez,” said the bones of the two thousand Capuchin monks.  Buried in Jerusalem soil, then exhumed and arranged into ghastly florets, lanterns, and triptychs, the earthly remains of the poor friars have been transubstantiated into decorations for five small alcoves that make up the Capuchin Crypt in Piazza Barberini.  A small donation is requested, but the exhibit is nominally free.  Of course, the true price is contemplation, and it is from this, I imagine, that the monks derive most satisfaction; those who have vowed poverty must be ever resourceful in seeking out satisfaction, and being able to find it in provoking thought is indeed a boon.  Such is the province of teachers, and clergy are nothing if not teachers.  What do the Capuchins teach?  In five languages, their small white placard preaches the gospel of mortality.  What you are, we were; what we are you will be, say the bones.  I find the French to be more elegant than the English and more concise than the Italian, which I don’t remember anyway.  Pithy adages about death are best, because they are easy to remember.
               However, the memento mori constructed by the monks would be far less poignant were it not for the elaborate ossuary mosaics it accompanies.  Skulls rest on stony pillows, and Jacob’s ladders of vertebrae reach up from empty eye sockets to a vault of scapulae that is starred with sacra.  Ministering ribs and femurs wait upon a child’s skeleton that holds a scythe and a balance.  The painting of Lazarus that adorns the first alcove must have been placed there by a particularly optimistic monk, or one with a cruel sense of humor.  There is no resurrection from the Child Death’s calcareous throne room.  We are flies to that wanton boy, and Providence seems to have less to do with how we end up than the aesthetic tastes of a man in a cowl.  Yet somehow I don’t think I’d mind becoming a few designs on the wall of the crypt so much, and not just because I won’t be around to see it.  The message we take away from the Capuchin crypt (if we take any at all: the contemplation, like the donation, is voluntary and by no means universal) is that what matters is not the limbs desiccating on the walls, nor even the limbs desiccating somewhat more slowly attached to the monks that are responsible for arranging their late confederates.  The spirit that moves the latter limbs and has departed from the former is the most important and mysterious thing that we can contemplate.
            Gaze at enough of the Capuchin bones, and the initial shock (and perhaps repugnance) is replaced by fascination.  At this juncture, the mind can travel one of two roads: unwilling to comprehend, or maybe unable, it may grasp again at repugnance and its Carnevale mask, graveyard humor; or, the consciousness may turn instead to fully face the placard and engulf the multilingual message for digestion.  I do not say “embrace,” because I don’t believe that anyone not in extrema can truly accept mortality, but perhaps that is only my own prejudice.  Embracing the gospel or not, the mind that recognizes it can move on to wonder at the artistry of the bone sculptures.  What elegance there is in a blossom of clavicles, what majesty in a relief of skulls and pelvises!

To be continued...
189 km (117 miles) traveled
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photo by: vulindlela