Communion Of Dreams

Italy, 2012: Atheist with an eye on God.

Friday (July 13th) morning for me was much as Thursday had been: get up, shower, breakfast in the hotel basement.

As I sat there, I contemplated the history of the place. Somewhere in the complex of the Pompei Theatre Julius Caesar was murdered. I looked around.

Maybe over there by the table with the juices…

* * * * * * *

Again I went walking around the area of the hotel. Noted that there was a nearby museum with a show up featuring the “big machines” of Leonardo da Vinci. Picked up a couple dozen postcards at various little stands and shops. None of which had stamps for them.

See, in Italy, contrary to most logic, the only place you can get postal stamps is from the little places called “tobacchi” you can find on occasional street corners. They feature cigarettes, candy, drinks. And usually a lotto machine or two, frequently with some elderly Italian compulsively feeding the thing money.

I tried three of these places, asking about postcard stamps for mailing the things back to the U.S. None of them had stamps. None of them could tell me what it cost to mail a postcard to the U.S., though they mostly agreed on how much it cost to mail one to another country in Europe (about $2.00).

Well, what about going to a real Post Office someplace?

Silly person – that’s where pensioners go to collect their pension and conduct other such business, not buy stamps. More like a credit union. And, of course, I could never find one open.

I gave up, took my postcards back to the Campo. I grabbed a seat at one of the small restaurants, ordered coffee, and sat and wrote the cards while I watched the merchants get the day’s business going. Worse came to worse, I figured I’d bring the cards home and mail them from here.

* * * * * * *

I met the group late morning and we all trundled off to have lunch. Today’s site visits focused on the Campus Martius, or at least what was still left of it. Which turned out to be quite a lot.

We started over by the Roman Forum, which is actually when I took this image:

The Roman Forum.

Then we made our way NW, coming to the Pantheon from the back, pausing so the group could discuss one of their Latin sources.

Reading from the Book of Tuck/Leonard.

When we emerged onto the Piazzo della Rotonda the Pantheon was off to our left side. It wasn’t until I came around to the north face that I recognized the iconic structure.

There’s a lot to say about the Pantheon. There’s a lot more that has been said about the Pantheon. Why, while I was in Italy, an item about it ran in the Wall Street Journal: A Portal to the Heavens.

A 2,000 year old building. Which has been in continuous use for all that time. Which still, to this day, has the largest un-reinforced concrete dome ever made. The next time you hear of a modern concrete structure which is crumbling, think about that.

The outside, beyond being so recognizable from the front, isn’t that impressive, to be perfectly honest. In fact, the portico is a bit of a mess. As the Wikipedia article says:

The Pantheon’s porch was originally designed for monolithic granite columns with shafts 50 Roman feet tall (weighing about 100 tons) and capitals 10 Roman feet tall in the Corinthian style.[26] The taller porch would have hidden the second pediment visible on the intermediate block. Instead, the builders made many awkward adjustments in order to use shafts 40 Roman feet tall and capitals eight Roman feet tall.[27]

“Awkward adjustments.” Yeah. That’s putting it kindly.

But when you pass through that front porch and enter the rotunda, all that is instantly forgotten. Because even when you are expecting it – even when you’ve already seen it several times (I know, I did) – entry into the rotunda wipes other matters from your mind. It demands your full, undivided attention. It is an architectural space which is the equivalent of a flow state. It simultaneously overwhelms and enhances you, focuses your entire being on the experience of that space.

Beam me up.

The WSJ article puts it well:

The Pantheon is the greatest interior in Western architecture, one where space is nearly as palpable as the forms that contain it—what isn’t there is as important as what is. This effect derives in part from the perfection of its proportions. As William L. MacDonald writes in his 1976 book on the building (still the indispensable guide to the subject), the Pantheon is a sphere within a cube. Continue the curvature of the dome downward, and you get an orb whose bottommost surface kisses the floor. Then raise four vertical planes at the cardinal points of the rotunda, capping them with a horizontal one brushing the oculus, and, with the floor, they’ll give you a container cube for the sphere.

* * *

Because of the vertical alignment of these elements, the eye is naturally drawn upward, and as it moves, we notice that the forms become simpler, more elemental. We trace a passage that gradually removes us from the specific, worldly realm below to the most abstract, universal shape of all. The oculus is many things. It is the Pantheon’s basic design module. It is an act of consummate architectural audacity. Most of all, however, it is a portal to the heavens.

The round disc of sunlight it admits draws our thoughts out and away from our immediate surroundings to the motion of the planets, and invites us to think of ourselves not as members of a particular faith, city or country, but as part of the whole cosmos.

I am a modern person, one who has traveled extensively, and seen many incredible structures. That comes with being married to an architect who enjoys travel as much as I do. And still, I found the experience of walking into the Pantheon to be almost spiritual.

Consider the effect it must have had on those who had never seen a room much larger than your average apartment. On people who had little or no understanding of the way a built space could be manipulated to achieve specific effect.

Yeah, it’d be easy to think that the people who built such a thing were like unto Gods.

* * * * * * *

After that, we cut over to the Piazza Montecitorio to see the Solare – the Obelisk of Montecitorio. This was brought from Egypt by the Emperor Augustus.

The Solare.

It’s impressive. No, really.

But still, I was happy to continue on down the alleyway to what is touted to be the best gelato in Rome. So was the rest of the group. Poor Steve almost got run over when he suggested that we leave the Piazza Montecitorio and go a block down the street.

(A note on *real* Italian gelato: I’m glad I finally had a chance to try it. A bit lighter than other forms of ice cream I’ve had around the world, yet still with a smooth quality and rich mouth-feel. I did try it another time or two, but I didn’t feel the compulsion to eat it whenever I could.)

* * * * * * *

Our next stop was the Palazzo Altemps, a 15th century home which is now part of the National Museum of Rome. In addition to seeing a couple of excellent marble artifacts (particularly the Suicide of a Gaul).

Looks like a party.

it was interesting to see some of the support structures put into place to help maintain the building itself.

Architecture retrofit.

* * * * * * *

The last site location of the day was the Ara Pacis now housed in a new (and somewhat controversial) museum built for it.

Ara Pacis.

Damned impressive.

Side panel of the Ara Pacis.

Even more impressive was the fact that the building actually had some climate control. Seriously, this was a huge surprise to me – to discover that any number of museum buildings in Italy have little or no climate control, at least in the summer. It is common to find windows completely open to the outside, no screens, no attempt to control humidity or temperature variations.

With some artifacts, this isn’t *that* big a deal. A nice marble sculpture is pretty damned stable, so long as it isn’t being subject to a freeze-thaw cycle and acid rain. But it was common to see other much more fragile items – books, documents, paintings, textiles – in conditions which made my professional side cringe.

Even more maddening, the rules about when you could or could not use camera flashes were almost totally random. And when they were invoked, it was just as likely to be when a flash wouldn’t be that much of a concern – again, when taking pictures of stone statues – while no one seemed to give a rat’s ass about extremely friable paintings.


* * * * * * *

We hiked back towards the hotel. Somehow, we got waylayed by beers at Mad Jack’s again. But this time we were joined with several other members of the tour group. Gave me a chance to get to know some of the others I hadn’t spent much time with yet. As I vaguely recall, some “Jim Downey” stories were told.

But I might be mistaken about that.

* * * * * * *

Then showers, and a bit of fun before dinner: going to see a street performance by The Miracle Players . This summer they’re performing Cleopatra with their own personal twist on the story.

Definitely fun, and geared so that kids will love the hell out of it. Warning – unlike the locals, they actually start on time. Don’t be late, or you won’t find a seat on the church steps to sit and watch the performance.

Jim Downey

And thanks to my friend ML for sending me the WSJ story about the Pantheon. Good timing.