Wednesday, February 23, 2011

A Long-Ago Day in Rome

A few words of introduction would probably help, here. Fifty-five years ago today, I left from the USS Ticonderoga, anchored off Naples, for a three day tour to Rome. Here is a letter I wrote to my parents shortly after my return to the ship. I hope you might enjoy it.

26 Feb. 1956

Dear Folks

Four thirty is far too early for any sensible person to even consider getting up, so I did. My bag had been packed the night before and left in the office, along with all the accessories I thought I’d need, so that when the time came to go all I’d forgotten was my ticket.

Off the boat and on the beach at six thirty, and directly to Naples’ cold, impersonal railway station where, for once, the train was waiting. I was the first one on and grabbed a compartment near the rear of the coach. Odd, but I’m becoming so familiar with European trains that our own will seem odd when I get back to the States.

European trains are much more punctual than movies give them credit for—or maybe I’ve just been lucky.

One of the greatest differences between Europe and America—one so common in the latter and so rare in the former that I’d never noticed it, was the presence of large patches of rolling green fields and hills. It was the first green, aside from the trees and occasional gardens, I’d seen since we arrived—it was beautiful, and for a moment I though it was America. Then we pulled into some small town with a railroad yards and I noticed those weird little freight trains that couldn’t fool anybody—the box cars look like loaves of bread on wheels, the tank cars like chunks of salami, and the ore cars like cookie boxes. Why they’re made so small is beyond me.

Between Naples and Rome, running along the right-hand (inland) side runs a ridge of mountains, some of them massive and jagged, others round and sloping. Whenever one got in the way, instead of going over or around, the train went under. Over the flatland stretching away between the mountains and the sea, the sun shined pleasantly, watching a bunch of sheep-clouds moving toward the mountains, where they bunched together and became mists and gloomy-looking sheets.

The mountains drew further back inland, and we began to see ancient brown towers, standing alone in the midst of fields. And then broken fragments of the famous aqueducts which had carried water from the mountains to Rome. They approached from the right, swept in and crossed the tracks, then ran parallel and almost next to the tracks. The arches filled in and solid brown walls raced along with the train. And then we were in the station.

Rome’s railway station is a huge, ultramodern affair with a long arcade of shops running its entire width. The walk from our train to the busses outside the station was longer than the ride from the station to the hotel, which is on a shady side street abut five blocks away. There were two hotels, actually—the Universal on one side of the street, and the San Remo on the other. We went to the San Remo, which is smaller but nice, and fairly modern.

Off to the left of the small lobby is a sort of lounge, which leads into the dining room. The rooms—ours at least—was nothing spectacular, but adequate—two beds with a stand between, a wardrobe, two chairs, and a desk. The view was of the center court, where all the other windows look blankly at one another.

Lunch (it was now 11:40) was the same one I’d eaten in Paris, Naples, and every other tour I’ve gone on—spaghetti, beef and potatoes, greens, cheese, fruit. After lunch Peter Paul and I walked around a bit; we found a museum built partly in an old Roman basilica. Snow still lay in the courtyards, which were lined with broken statues, and friezes, fountains and frescoes. It struck me as if they were almost ashamed to be there—like a proud old man in a poorhouse.

The tour left the hotel at two, stopping first at the Fountain of Trevi—of Three Coins in a Fountain fame. It was beautiful, built into the side of a building. Unfortunately, I was unable to give it the awe and admiration it deserved, because my camera chose this time to stop working.

It still was out of order when we reached the Pantheon, one of the magnificent buildings of ancient Rome. From the outside it is nothing much—a circular building with a large dome. Inside, it is beautiful—a word which doesn’t nearly approach the correct description.

Built in the latter part of the second century, it was intended to be exactly what its name means—Pantheon, meaning “all gods.” Here, in one temple, all the gods of Rome were honored. The dome is a vaulted masterpiece of stone paneling; at the very top of the dome is a hole, though which the gods entered. Rain has fallen through that hole for 2,000 years, and yet the marble floors are unharmed. All around the vast room are niches containing statues of seven of the Roman gods. When Christianity took over, the Pantheon was converted to a Christian church, with the condition that should anything happen to any of the statues—even the smallest chip from a finger or nose, the statue would be removed; and when all the statues are gone, the church will be taken away from the people. The huge bronze doors—twenty feet high—are the originals; beneath the marble floor lies the tomb of Raphael, the great painter whose works adorn the Vatican.

After the Pantheon, we drove to the Forum—during which time I fixed my camera with a pair of nail clippers.

The Forum—the heart of the Empire, whose legions ruled the known world; where was plotted the murder of Julius Caesar, and where Marc Antony carried Caesar’s body and delivered his funeral oration.

Nestled in a valley flanked by the Capitoline and Palatine hills, the Forum begins with the Arch of Severus Septimus, through which Rome’s mighty legions rode, bringing the wealth of the world to one city. Directly to the left stands the Senate House, the only building still standing complete, stripped of its marble.

A wide boulevard ran down the Forum, with tall columns topped by statues, and lined on either side by magnificent temples and buildings of state. Near the end of the Forum, on the right, stands the remains of the Imperial Palace which looked on its left to the Forum and on its right to the Circus Maximus which could seat 250,000 people. At the very end of the Forum stands the Arch of Titus, bearing the proud words which were the symbol of Rome—“Senatus Populesque Romanus” (The Roman Senate and People). On the left after passing through this arch stand the columns of the Temple of Venus. And then the road spread out and around the Coliseum, that fabulous giant of a ruin—the epitome of Rome. Once completely circular, it was badly decayed when used as a fortress during the Renaissance, and later partly restored by one of the Popes, who placed a cross before the Imperial box—from where so many Christians had been watched die.

The Coliseum to the Vatican, and St. Peter’s church. On this spot, once Vatican Hill, St. Peter had been crucified upside down. Here, in 1216, St. Peter’s church had been begun—the largest in the world. Michaelangelo constructed the dome—502 feet from the floor of the church, without any braces or supports whatever.

In front of the church is St. Peter’s Square, which is actually a circle, surrounded by two curved arcades topped with innumerable statues.

To try and describe the inside of the church would take someone with a far greater power of words than I. The first thing that impressed me upon entering was not its size, but its modernness. Not gloomy, like other cathedrals, with cumbersome cold pillars everywhere—but a soft blue-grey with flat columns blended in with the walls. Overhead, the rounded ceiling is all gold. Along the tops of the walls, in niches, stand statues of the saints who founded various religious orders—all in pure dove-grey stone.

The size is difficult to grasp at first, because the proportions are so exquisite. On either wall, as you enter, two marble cherubs hold a bowl of holy water; these “cherubs” are six feet tall, at least—standing at one side, and looking at the other, they appear very small and delicate. Height can be noticed only by looking at a group of people half an inch high far down from you, and looking up slowly it’s awesome to say the very least. And the most beautiful thing is that none of it is the least gaudy or pompous.

Every cathedral in the world is measured according to St. Peter’s –their length is acknowledged by gold stars on the floor. Even St. Paul’s, in London—the second largest church in the world, would fit nicely inside St. Peter’s. Notre Dame is a good half-distance down St. Peter’s floor.

In the center, beneath the dome, is a coupella (sunken place in the floor) where St. Peter is buried. Behind this stands the main altar. The cathedral, as are all cathedrals, is built in the shape of a cross. It is directly in the center of this cross that the dome rises. Even the dome of our own Capitol building cannot compare with the tremendous height of St. Peter’s. To look up and up and up—it leaves you numb. The dome is the exact measurement of the entire Pantheon—it too has a hole in it, covered by a smaller dome—for our God to enter.

And so back to the hotel for supper. After supper, I went out, alone, to walk around. I’d bought an American paper—the Rome American Daily, and found out there were two theaters in Rome showing American movies with American voices. It only took two hours of walking to find it—tucked away on some side street—3 Via Nicolo de Tolino, to be exact. The name of the movie was Rebel Without a Cause with James Dean. I enjoyed it immensely; the theater itself was the nicest I’ve seen in Europe—nicer, even, than some back home. They permit smoking, there are no intermissions every ten minutes, and no one comes up the aisle selling pop and toasted almonds. No cartoon, and the newsreel was in Italian, as was a commercial for Motta bread.

Tickets cost 700 Lire ($1.13, roughly) and seats are assigned. Still nice, though. Of course, if you come in in the middle of the movie, you may find your seat sold from under you at the beginning of the next showing.

Well, this is one day—I haven’t time to finish tonite—will write more later.


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Nigel said...

What a wonderful letter! Your writing skills began early, that's obvious. I get the feeling your next novel will be set in Rome. Am I right?

Dorien/Roger said...

Thank you, was very kind of you to say.

I'd really like to set a novel overseas. We'll see how my upcoming trip goes.

Jardonn Smith said...

Thank you for taking me on your long-ago trip. I'm thinking, and hoping, you will offer an update - comparison/contrast soon after your return.

Dorien/Roger said...

Stay tuned, Jardonn...I'll have my computer with me and will try to send a steady stream of reflections on my adventures (and I'll be taking a lot of photos this time, too.)

Thanks for your interest!

Jardonn Smith said...

That's even better. I forgot we can do that now. See? Your letter took me back to pre-laptop, pre-digital photo days.