How do words find parallels in images? Where do art, architecture, history, and beauty intersect? Rome provides its own ethereal and persuasive response. Rome is the natural habitat of artisans, ancient works of civilization, Latinists, philosophers, saints, architectural edifices, political revolution, and Italian madness, creativity, and mirth. The folly of human life encounters the divine in this city. It is where ancient culture merges with contemporary life and becomes a harmonious chaos. Rome is the archetype, the original.
I have imagined studying here for a semester, and now I am doing so. It is the perfect way to see Rome from a new perspective. Not the eyes of an overwhelmed or lost tourist in a jumble or maze of three million people, but those of an affable resident and serious college student. Yes, of course, Rome is a modern-day Italian city. There are lots of visitors, noise, locals on cell phones, traffic jams, congested streets, Fiats, Vespa motor scooters, dogs on leashes, overcrowded cafes, and bars. And no doubt a myriad of sightseers and students just like me have wandered around Rome, taking in the grand vision while consuming (in volume and with regularity) many espressos, cappuccinos, plates of pasta, slices of pizza, gelatos, an occasional Aperol Spritz aperitif, bottles of fizzy water, and glasses of wine without missing a beat.
But Rome is more than the sum of those parts. Yes, the uniquely Italian sustenance and libations are part of both the semester abroad and the booked tour, long known to travelers as the “Roman Holiday.” Rome, I have gleaned, is also a dramatic composition, a tribute to antiquity and a centuries-long metamorphosis. It is prized as a walking museum where the modern city collapses into the past with a blink of an eye, or a turn through the piazza. One does not just read about historical events here. One is transported to them.
I have visited many of Rome’s impressive spectacles. To name some of the places seen this semester: I have marveled at the Pantheon where Raphael the painter and architect is buried, the iconic Colosseum, Trajan’s Column celebrating his triumphs in the Dacian Wars, the 135 Spanish Steps linking Piazza dei Monti with Piazza di Spagna, the equestrian statue of the philosopher ruler Marcus Aurelius on the Capitoline Hill, Bernini’s Baldachin (bronze canopy) in St. Peter’s Basilica, the Emperor Nero’s Domus Aurea (“golden house”), Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment” in the Sistine Chapel, and Raphael’s frescoes in the Papal Apartments. There are also hundreds of churches and chapels in Rome, an overwhelming number, but I have visited several gems over the course of my time here and contemplated their beauty.
Rome was blessed with many benefactors in its history: erudite, heroic, beleaguered, visionary, tormented, scholarly, faithful, creative, practical, stoic, rejected, even martyred. Caesar Augustus, Lucretius, Ovid, Cicero, Vergil, Marcus Aurelius, St. Peter, Livy, St. Cecilia, St. Paul, Michelangelo, Raphael, Botticelli, Bernini, Caravaggio — and the anonymous stonemasons, blacksmiths, glassblowers, and carpenters also come to mind. They bore witness to the fall, revival, renaissance, and re-invention of Rome on the literary, political, artistic, architectural, and theological planes. To meander through Rome, to see it, is to be indebted to them. They are an essential part of its story, its history.
Whether in class or touring on foot, four months of living here was never going to be enough time to explore its cultural legacy, but it is a fantastic beginning. My knowledge of Rome has grown through on-site studies and lectures that animate texts. Professors and lecturers have taught me that Rome is polysemous; she is of the world, yet not of the world. Vergil, Livy, and Ovid described it as the “Eternal City,”and those words resonate. I have lived in a city that celebrates “la dolce vita” (the good life), values the life of the mind, honors the past, and acknowledges the sorrows of the heart. I have seen Rome’s decay and limitations, and I have appreciated her extravagances, her devotion, and her melancholia. I have lamented Rome’s bureaucratic inefficiency and postal delivery bottlenecks, but remain an enthusiastic advocate. I have gained a deeper understanding of the figures who inspired change, transformed Rome, and continue to inspire.
Rome intrigues those who visit because it casts a spell both past and present. It changes how one sees life and how one interprets the world. Marcus Aurelius was right: “the soul becomes dyed with the color of its thoughts.” When I leave Rome in May, I know this city will remain with me. I hope to return to the Eternal City, even if it is only in my daydreams. The Russian poet Anna Akhmatova wrote about traveling to Italy as a moving experience, “a dream you remember all your life.” For my time in Rome, I know this will be true. Grazie mille, a thousand thanks.