Reflections on the end.

This, dear readers, is the end. I would never permit myself to continue blogging without an actual interesting life about which to blog and, quite frankly, I don’t expect such a scenario to soon arise. First I return to that most blissful, perfect, peaceful monotony of home, family, hot chocolate and Christmas (I suppose we can start thinking about it). After these halcyon days too have come to a close, reality will settle in: classes, rehearsals, actual obligations, the like. This is a happy end, and a sad one; a thoughtful end, but above all an immensely grateful one. It has been a semester like none other, and it has been an honor and a joy to share it with you in this way. I cannot possibly express my gratitude to the innumerable people who have made it possible, and made it exquisite.

Where then can I even begin the end of the incomparable adventure I have had in Rome? As all things seem to in this great city, I think I must begin with tourists. I actually first articulated the following to myself as I was relaxing outside the Louvre in Paris, marveling at the hoards of people who were taking incessant photos of themselves juxtaposed on just about anything imaginable. I understand well the desire to remember a place that is special, but what I couldn’t comprehend was the need to insert oneself onto that place. When there is so much beauty and history present, how can plastering my smiling face on top of it possibly add anything to its value? Would not the implication that I could be merely an insult to the splendor of the place? The immediate problem this posed, of course, was that I too was there. Though I wasn’t in any of them—and wouldn’t have been making peace signs if I were—I was snapping my pictures just the same. Even worse, infinitely worse, I was sticking them on a blog! The truth, after much reflection, revealed itself somewhere between my arrogance and their superficiality, and of course, it’s all about Beauty.

If Beauty is to be anything but our subjective feelings of elation or an algorithm of random synaptic activity, it must be the type of thing that transcends us. Its very nature must demand that, in encountering Beauty, we become lost in Her vast profundity. This is not merely a figure of speech. We truly must “die to self,” realizing how miniscule we are compared to, well, eternity and infinity. We stand “gazing at the sky,” and must ask: how can something so wonderful truly be real? The answer to this question is simple: “I am.” In this Truth, but even in the basic ability to seek it out, to ask this question, one finds not man’s minuteness but his greatness. Man alone among the creatures has reason, and compassion, and all the elements necessary to seek out and find Beauty and make her his own. But far beyond this grandiose extolment of humanity, these truths must strike us on a personal level. I have a unique perspective to capture and reflect beauty in an unrepeatable way; you hold Beauty within you in a way that no one else ever can or will. And so by the very same principle that demands that any encounter with Beauty—by its transcendence—take root in us and change us, in a sense too this encounter must change Beauty. She acquires a new face through which to shine; She lives in each of us in a new way, unimaginable without our participation. We fall into grave error when we start to believe that our involvement is that which makes a thing beautiful, or that Beauty would fail to be Beauty without us. But, properly understood, it is an incomparable treasure, an O magnum mysterium, that Beauty should come to dwell among us in this way.

What is the point of all this? To vindicate tourists? While I understand better the motivation to commemorate one’s participation in something greater than the self—and this has curbed my arrogance—I would still fault most tourists with greatly limiting the scope and depth of their interaction with Beauty. But tourists are decidedly not the point. Is it instead to prove—mostly to myself—that puns, wine and idleness haven’t completely deteriorated my mind this semester? Perhaps a little. Ultimately, though, it comes down to this: before departing, when I described the things I anticipated the most, I rattled off a list of experiences. Eat good food; drink good wine; go to Mass at a different church every day. I would still list these among the best aspects of my time here, but not as experiences. I would be hard pressed to remember every glass of wine I’ve had (not in that sense), or to tell you the difference between Santa Maria ai Monti and Santa Maria dei Miracoli, or any of the other hundreds of Santa Marias. Of course, some wines and some Santa Marias stand out, but if I look at my time here as a sequence of experiences, it will fade away astonishingly quickly. Instead, I consider myself blessed to have grown in the ability to appreciate my time here as a tapestry woven with innumerable rich threads, or as Beauty living within me—and in a sense you too, faithful reader—and changing me in real, subtle ways. Maybe that’s what the tourists miss (though again, they are not the point).

Perhaps I ought to justify the claim I’ve made of “In a real way,” lest this all seem like pretty words and disconnected musing. For instance, I doubt that the rest of my life will give anything but limited occasion to use the Italian language. But, I am still enriched by having learned enough of it to know that humanity shares universally in experiences like going through a breakup at 11 PM or being kicked off a train because you “lost your ticket in Bologna” (both of which I’ve overheard, understood, and wished I hadn’t). Even fart noises are universally funny. Or, for the first time ever, I have lived this semester mostly dependent on my own capacity to cook Italian-esque food. Though replete with “experiences,” I would do a disservice to this adventure if I remembered it solely as such. Even the trivial things lose their triviality when viewed properly as reflections of Beauty unique to the wonderful places I’ve been: I finally learned how to spell ‘Trastevere” correctly (there’s no ‘n’); I realized that in Italy, Padre Pio, Francis of Assisi and Catherine of Siena might be the only canonized people to have ever lived (or at least mattered…); why is the vast majority of graffiti here some variation of “ti amo [so and so]”?! A semester is a success indeed if it opens your eyes to the world’s unpredictable richness, because this realization stays with you and changes your entire life, no matter where you are.

Even with the perfect segue I just made possible, I promised myself not to conclude with some nonsense about this being “not really the end, but just another beginning,” because that’s ridiculous and horribly clichéd. This is the end. I’m going home in mere hours. I’m removing wordpress.com from my bookmarks. Basta. But, it is not a barren end. It is an end saturated in the fertile Beauty that irrevocably changes us, ennobles us and enriches us; a beauty that cannot die because it lives within us. This is the only end befitting of a city that is, truly, eternal. 

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The last post with pictures…

First, to my great shame, I forgot one of the best features of Bari when I posted yesterday! They have a very unique interpretation of Advent wreaths. By “very unique,” I mean “barely recognizable.” None had evergreen, for starters. One sported candles of blue, red, yellow and white. Another was perched on a weirdly shaped tree trunk. My favorite, though, was this:

Neo-paganism meets German engineering.

Yes. Four white candles floating in pillars of water, surrounded by the elements. I do love the progression of the materials: lifeless rock is refined to dirt, which is life-supporting; from this comes the simple greenery, and finally this is brought to rich, colorful, vibrant life. OK, I can buy it. And besides, this was in the Cathedral, which has seen worse than dirt in it (refer to my post yesterday)…

Right, back to Rome. I said arrivederci today by the same means with which this city and I have shared our love all semester: meanderingly. Two of the churches I’d planned on visiting (of course, the two that were far out of the way and hard to get to) were closed. The internet is good for many things, but discovering the truth may not be one of them. However, I got to take a beautiful walk regardless, and soak in the warm weather and, well, Romanness of it all:

And the picture doesn’t lie: it recedes on like this for infinity.

Of the churches that were open, most of them were rather boring. This is good, as I would have been rather upset with myself if I’d discovered a gem on the very last day. In San Giorgio in Velabro, I was greeted with a bowl claiming to contain the “cranium” of St. George, which could translate to anything from “brain” to “skull.” It didn’t look like bones; that’s all I know.

This picture ACTUALLY doesn’t lie: the church is rather trapezoidal.

In the nearby Sant’Anastasia, I must steal some theological analysis from Fr. Gray. Saint Anastasia’s feast day is Christmas, and her name refers to the Resurrection. This beautiful connection of the Incarnation and the Resurrection is somewhat well captured in the church (I have high standards, in case you cannot tell). In the apse, there is a painting of the Nativity. OK, fair enough. In the chapel where perpetual adoration is held, instead of a monstrous monstrance, the Eucharist is displayed within the tabernacle, but with the door open, as if emerging from the tomb. The connection is weak, but they get my positive regards for the effort. 

The last church of the day about which I have anything meaningful to say was called Santi Luca e Martina. It had a nice ceiling. 

Sometimes, a nice ceiling and a winning personality is all it takes.

These adventures were followed by a slightly-less-furious-than-I-had-anticipated packing spree, a vigil Mass (in English!) and a truly wonderful meal with the entire Rome program: students, teachers, administrators and the fantastic seminarians who have been with us this whole semester. In short, a great group of friends with whom I have shared these blissful times. We dined well, the conversation was incomparable, and it nothing was lacking on this last evening. Indeed, everything about this day was ideal and, though slightly tinted with sadness, a meaningful and fulfilling conclusion to my time here. So, it is no passing comment to say that I have saved the best for last. This morning I woke up at an unspeakably early hour for a completely candlelit Extraordinary Form Missa cantata. It was one of the most beautiful, symbolically resonant Masses I’ve ever experienced.

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If you think I’m artistic enough (especially before the sun has even risen) to do it in black and white, think again. Photo cred to…someone else. From the position I’m guessing a seminarian named Joshua.

This was exquisitely beautiful, and the type of thing that is really special and unique to being here in Rome with these wonderful people. I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect beginning to my last day. 

I have one concluding post to publish, a summary of sorts, but this is the last one about actual events, per se. A presto!

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Sassi and sassy

In search of warmth and the true meaning of relaxation, I could think of no other place to go than Southern Italy. I spent my time here in three places: Bari, Alberobello and Matera. The same characteristic attracted me to each of them: a beautiful place to wander about without much to do. Perfetto.

The particular variety of “not much to do” in Bari mostly involved the picturesque old town, where the streets are tiny and easy to get lost in. As in, you enter old town, think you have a good idea of where you’re going, and wind up exactly where you started five minutes later. It’s particularly loveable around meal-times, where all the families cook delectab;e meals with the doors and windows thrown wide open. Another sizeable chunk of my time was spent relaxing by the ocean. Especially when one can ignore the thin layer of petrochemicals and fish oils that is perpetually adorning the surface, it’s really quite beautiful.

See, the pollution makes it even more reflective and shiny, so it’s actually a good thing.

I attended one Mass at the cathedral, after which I resolved to go to the rest at San Nicola, the basilica where St. Nicholas is interred (apparently I missed quite the party on his feast a week ago). I’d prefer Dominicans who don’t give homilies (the P stands for……nope, I’ve got nothin’) at the latter to extremely disinterested, yawning, speeding-through-everything priests at the former. Although, some of the oddities of Masses in Southern Italy come from the other side of the altar… For instance, everyone in the congregation is very chatty, all the time. Such as during the consecration. Although, this is preferable to, say, smoking in church. Which wasn’t during a Mass, and was one of those electronic cigarettes, but still happened. Ah, Southern Italy, you are a very unique place.

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If you look carefully enough, you can see the smoke—I mean water vapor—steaming out of every nook and cranny. Just as it should be.

On Wednesday, I took a day trip to a town called Alberobello. This particular part of Apulia is known most for its unique architecture, buildings called the “trulli” (“trullo” singular). 

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Stone traffic cones meet Star Wars.

I explored the town a little, but my real reason for going was the vicinity to the wide open countryside. Nothing but olive trees, trulli and good honest dirt as far as the eye can see.

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Rocks. I forgot to mention they have rocks. REAL rocks!

While happily meandering amongst this beauty, I noticed that there happened to be a lot of wide open space devoid of nearby sources of manmade light. Coincidentally, these happen to be the ideal conditions for stargazing, and I had nothing to do that evening. It helps that the sun sets rather early here. Briefly, since words cannot do it justice, it was cold but worth it.

Thursday was spent in Matera, another nearby city famous for the amount of scat to be found in public places. Or at least, that’s what it should be famous for. I counted 7 different species. It is actually known for its ancient dwellings, known as the Sassi:

This is the Lord of the Rings to Alberobello’s Star Wars. I’m not saying it’s a lot cooler or anything, but yeah, kinda that.

From another angle, it looks like:

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…I’ve got nothing. Let’s see you try to caption something this awesome.

Yes, the city sits on the brink of rugged, barren wilderness. It’s very poetic, very photogenic and makes for good hiking:

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And reminds me of Utah. I expected Mormons to be hopping out from behind the rocks any second.

Really, this blog post would be infinitely better as an uninterrupted series of pictures of Matera. But, a picture is not really worth a thousand words, so some description is in order. In addition to the city’s ancient, primal aesthetic (that I’m sure is contributed to by being hewn from the side of a mountain), across the valley there are some cave dwellings that archaeologists believe make the city the oldest continuously inhabited place in Europe, if Wikipedia is to be believed (and it is). The lady I asked for directions kept insisting that I needed a car to get to them, but I proved her wrong.

My interaction with the local culture (across all three cities) revealed that Southern Italians are unused to and rather hostile towards tourists, which I loved (this is the “sassy” part of the title; it’s a stretch, but it’s also late and I’m tired). It was either admire it or be offended, so I chose the more enjoyable outlook.

The first glorious exception to this principle was the gracious and hospitable matriarch of the hole-in-the-wall family run restaurant where I ate on Wednesday night. Coincidentally, her food was also the best. First she brought me a free bruschetta, complements of the house. It was probably the best bruschetta I’ve had in Italy, which is saying something. Then I had some tubetti (“little tubes”) pasta with mussels, perfectly grilled shrimp, and some grilled peppers (served cold but surprisingly delicious, given that). All of this with a delicious house wine (red, of course). I had some trouble picking out a dessert (since I didn’t know any of the terms in Italian) so she brought me a little sampler plate, and some gelato that had chunks of sugar on top of it. I won’t explicitly tarnish my image by saying that it wasn’t even a disappointment when it turned out that there was some coffee flavored ice-cream inside, but I will say that everything I ate that night was exquisite. Take that for what it’s worth…All of this cost just over half of what it would have in Rome. The other nights were also very fine—pizza and buffalo mozzarella on Thursday, mountains of Greek food (there’s a pretty big influence in Bari) on Tuesday—and of course sempre vino.

The second exception to the “Southern Italians don’t like tourists” rule was the amazing hostel at which I stayed, called the “Olive Tree.” The owners were incredibly kind and helpful, above and beyond the call of duty, and made my stay amazing. It was probably the best hostel I’ve stayed in during all my adventures. I just felt like they deserved a shout-out.

Alas, there are so many little details that I wish I could relate, but that would be unfeasible. I had a great time! There have only been two downsides to this trip. First, relaxing is hard for me. But somehow I managed. Secondly, I haven’t had enough things to complain about. All things considered, I’m not too upset with either. 

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My finals week is over…

I’ve had a running list of churches to visit on my computer since the moment I decided I was coming to Rome. It got compiled by hearsay and recommendations, late night Churches of Rome Wiki binges (this website deserves a Pulitzer), and just about any other odd means you can possibly imagine. When the semester started winding down, I had to put a moratorium on adding new ones (which I broke at least five times). I also started organizing the disparate churches by location and creating itineraries for efficient trips. Yes, I’m a nerd. But, on rare occasion, we nerds are given indisputable direct affirmation and encouragement from God Himself. This was the case when I lined up five churches on my list in an area of the city that’s slightly more of a hassle to get to (think: Metro B line…) in the most efficient walking path. My moment of providential divine confirmation came when I saw that the opening times which—mind you, in the optimal order—were 8, 8:30, 9, 9:30 and 10. 

Wait, God wants me to be…here?

OK, so maybe the first one was a little plain. But that’s fine, I was still waking up anyway. Part of His plan. This church, San Saba, is not to be confused with Santa Sabina, which has several more letters, several more Dominicans, and several more interesting things going on. I’m giving San Saba a hard time because the blue fresco you see in the apse looked like it was done by a child in the 1930s. Largely due to renovations like these, it’s evident that the church’s 4th century glory days have clearly passed.

I only stayed briefly at the next church on the itinerary—San Giovanni e Paolo—because they were setting up for a wedding! So I prayed for the new couple and booked it out of there. But not before keenly observing that the church had relics of two of my favorite saints: San Pammacchio and San Saturnino. Why they didn’t name the church after those great men (who with names like that you would expect to be the kind of Saints that didn’t actually exist, but they DID!) I’ll never understand.

This is actually the next church, San Clemente, but no one wants to read three unbroken consecutive paragraphs of just text while I explain that.

San Clemente made up for any mediocrity in San Saba and any grotesque baroqueness in San Giovanni e Paolo (did I fail to mention that? It was bad.). The upper church, pictured, was built in the 11th century; beneath it was a 4th century church, and below that was an excavation site of several ancient Roman buildings. There were also Dominicans praying the Liturgy of the Hours in English, which was unexpected to say the least. Particularly because it sounded like none of them were actually native speakers (or speakers at all…).

Right next door, I was put back at ease by the very Italian Augustinian nuns at Santi Quattro Coronati, a church dedicated to four martyrs (‘crowned ones’). The church was rather nice; I took some illicit pictures. But fare more impressive was the chapel next door dedicated to San Sylvestro. I had to request entrance in Italian! This chapel is decorated with some vivid narrative frescoes. My favorite part is this:

You guessed it! The little cherub in the bottom right!

To Christ’s right, the angel is unfurling what appears to be a large roll of cloth. This was a little confusing until I noticed that its pattern was nearly identical to that on the ceiling of the chapel: a white background with a very particular design of silver star. OK then, it’s the heavens that are being unrolled. Upon this realization, how beautiful the symbol becomes: heaven is something that is gradually revealed to us, bit by bit. We cannot enter its immensity except by an arduous, long process. Even taken literally this is true: anyone who has stargazed (or understands the mechanisms of light and the eye) knows how more and more of the sky’s fullness appears the longer you stare.

Speaking of stair-ing, I next visited the Scala Sancta, the supposed stairs of Pilate’s praetorium on which Christ ascended and descended during the Passion. They were brought to Rome by good ol’ Saint Helena, my favorite mommy-Saint after Monica. One can only climb them on one’s knees, so perhaps “speaking of arduous, long processes” would have been the more fitting transition to this paragraph. But, it was a very holy, meditative, penitential experience. The space is also masterfully decorated. The wall at the top of the stairs very fittingly has a gorgeous depiction of the crucifixion. And above this, there is a dome with God the Father depicted inside. But, one cannot tell this from the bottom. So, as one climbs (surrounded by images of the Passion), one slowly realizes the Father’s presence, beholding and united to Christ’s suffering. Thus it is that the gravity and mystery of our salvation is slowly revealed to us only by uniting our suffering to God’s. The only downside was that the person in front of me was wearing ridiculous shoes with golf tees attached to the heels. Umm, what?

They also say that shared suffering is all the greater, so for the sake of salvation I’m going to ask for some golf tee shoes for Christmas. Or maybe some crocs.

After this, I had planned to go to confession and Mass at San Giovanni Laterano, which is right next door. God, who we’ve established is the mastermind of this plan, decided to let there be some sort of clerical conference—unannounced online—that cancelled the 11 and 12 Masses. So I booked it over to Santa Maria Maggiore and did so there instead. Silly cathedral.

I was similarly deceived on Sunday, when I had planned to go to Mass at Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza. This church is only open for a couple of hours for Sunday Mass every week, and I’ve heard great things about it, so I went. The website said there was a 9:30 Mass. A plaque outside the courtyard said it was actually at 10. A sign inside the church said “Nope, it’s at 11 sucker!” (rough translation from the Italian). So I took my holiness elsewhere, thank you very much.

But it does have a really cool ceiling. There are more unexpected shapes than a Picasso painting, and without the disturbing conceptions of nudity!

There was also a very elaborate nativity set. This is to be expected: they are very popular in Italy. Just about every church has one, and they’re all horribly elaborate; I’m pretty sure their function extends no farther than “let’s one-up the church next door.” For instance, this one had running water. Yep, Italy.

I went to Mass instead at San Giovanni ai Fiorentini, because I remembered three things about this church. First, it has the foot of Saint Mary Magdalene, patron of my diocese. Good stuff. Second, it has a lot of beautiful art that I enjoyed. This goes along with being “of the Florentines.” Finally, it had a ghastly, atrocious painting that I wanted to go reexamine. I’ve discussed this “art” here. Unfortunately—no, wait, definitely fortunately—it was nowhere to be found! I can only hope that it was, in the timeless words of Gru, “accidentally maliciously destroyed.” Coincidentally, I noticed after the fact that I had been stuck in Florence on the night before my Liturgy class’ midterm, the final for which was on Monday. So perhaps that fiasco has come full-circle in a symbolically satisfying way.

Monday morning, I went to Mass at a church called San Vitale. Many churches from this one’s time have mismatched columns that were appropriated from other buildings. This one did not. Perhaps to make it feel less left out, or perhaps just in homage to the noble tradition of spoliation, the artist of this one painted on some mismatched columns. 

For three easy payments of 19.99, you too can vaguely disorient people without actually being unharmonious!

I did quite like this church. The fresco in the apse was particularly beautiful. And it wasn’t obstructed by a giant baldachino, which is always a plus.

I also took my liturgy final and finished my economics take-home final today, but the real highlight was a procession from Santa Maria della Pace to San Salvatore in Lauro. I’ve been to a couple of these processions, and they’re great. Everyone gathers around an image or statue, lights up some red candles and incense, and takes said item from one church to another while singing, praying, chatting and having a generally good time. It’s very Italian, and it’s very wonderful. At the end, we were greeted with this “macchina barocca” (“Baroque machine”).

I counted the candles: one grillion and seven. That’s a lot.

This experience did a lot to redeem (or at least explain) the Baroque for me. The common devotional decoration of Our Lady of the Illustrious Golden Shrapnel Explosion is actually not meant to be basked in 2 million watts of artificial light. I can’t use the word “subtlety” to describe anything going on here, but when viewed in flickering candlelight, even very bright flickering candlelight, this art is much less repulsive. It has some, well…subtlety. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still an egregious misappropriation of gold and shrapnel, but now there’s at least one sense in which it can be enjoyed.

I then went to an exquisite dinner with Father Gray. Eggplant lasagna loaded with cheese and a meat dish with mushrooms covered in an unidentifiable fragrant sauce are good in any way they are taken, but are all the better with great conversation (and wine). It was a perfect evening.

After all of these adventures, I am proud to say that there are only two tituli that I have yet to visit (excluding those that have been destroyed, closed for renovation or lost to history). And, they happen to be very close to each other and open in the same two hour window on Saturday. So, one could say that I’m tituliatingly close to completing this goal.

To not leave you in uncomfortable agony, I’ll close of by saying that I wrote this on a train to Bari, Southern Italy (and you better believe it was delayed! 1 hour and 20 minutes this time). Now I can leave you angry/jealous instead. I have completed all my finals and papers, and have absolutely no obligations at all until, well, January or so. La dolce vita baby! 

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The least boring final week of classes ever

This was the last week of classes here in Rome. As such, I’ve been a little busy with pressing things like assignments, Settlers of Catan and, of course, visiting churches. The omnipresent feeling of things winding down here has compelled the last of these activities. Indeed, this is the only context in which you will ever hear me condone anything even remotely related to “making a list and checking it twice.” Perhaps it is the timelessness of a warm, halcyon end-times in Rome, or perhaps it is merely a typical sleep-deprived brainlessness, but in any case, it seems more manageable and fitting to present a mirage of impressions than this hectic story line. So, here are some general thoughts that this time has presented to me.

First, I’ve been reminded of how much I love dark churches. After about 5 PM or so, you can take the most boring baroque bombasticism (go with it) and turn off the lights and it suddenly becomes a mysterious place of contemplation. This week, I’ve rediscovered this truth more in relation to Rome’s other distinctive type of church (central nave, often with mismatching columns; side aisles with lower ceilings; lots of squared off corners; Renaissance ceiling; few rounded arches; mosaic in the apse; etc. etc.). One cannot tell that they’re all the same when one cannot really see them! For instance, I give you San Martino ai Monti:

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It looks just like Santa Maria Maggiore and San Paolo fuori le Mure got together and…wait. Let’s not symbolically analyze that one. It’s getting a little too Dan Brown-y in here.

OK, beyond masking certain…imperfections…I also find the dark a meditative and contemplative environment for prayer. So I’m not a total jerk. The church above is one of the 25 or 28 tituli, which were basically the parish churches of the early Church. They’ve all been swagged out to greater or lesser effectiveness since, but it’s very cool regardless to be in places where God has been worshipped for thousands of years. Now, if you know me, you know that “very cool” usually translates to “let’s take this way further than it needs to go.” Since I had visited several of these tituli by chance in the past few days, I decided to see how many more I have to visit to get all of them. In a fittingly symbolic way, excluding the ones that have been destroyed, lost to history or are run by nuns who don’t like sharing, the number is 7, most of which I’d already made plans to visit anyway! I have a new quest.

Now, in doing all the requisite research for quests like these, one often comes upon rather strange things on the Internet. For instance, the website for a church that will remain anonymous hosts a link to “Adorazione On-Line.” Morbid curiosity got the better of me, and as I had feared, this is a link to a streaming web-cam of a monstrance. You could tell it was real, too, because there was a guy in the background who kept scratching his head with his rosary. That this exists is wrong on SO many levels.

Permit me to cleanse your palate with this cool statue, found in San Pietro in Montorio.

He looks like he’s about to go hack the server for that website to pieces with all the authority that comes with having written most of the New Testament.

 

I liked this statue because it shows Paul’s rich complexity (no, this is not an apostolic dating site, although even that would be less appalling than Adorazione On-line). He is leaning on his sword, embracing his martyrdom completely (he would fall over if it was taken away), and yet the position still makes him hunch his shoulders, showing how it is, well, unnatural and undesirable. The book is open and he looks out to the world. This could obviously mean a lot of things, and this is a necessary characteristic of good art (though, I should add, not a sufficient one).

Another notable church I visited this week was San Marcello al Corso. This painting, found inside, interestingly summarizes why I found the church itself meaningful:

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I’m now realizing that maybe I should have checked to see if it was Baybel cheese wax on that tabernacle; if so, I’ve found the perfect niche market for all my talents.

As some Saint or another is praying (or possibly dying, but either way, he’s looking devoutly towards the skies) Jesus is about to come and greet him from a direction he hadn’t ever imagined. The rich spiritual notion that Christ is always coming to us in ways we never could have expected was refreshing (such as when you are searching for Chopin variations and come across the Rachmaninoff Variations on a Theme of Chopin). This theme struck me several times in this church. For instance, I’m usually able to walk rather quickly past these Saints adoring types of paintings, since they’re all quite similar. So, I certainly didn’t expect to find such a meaningful one! The same can often be said for baroque churches, yet this one had a disproportionately beautiful collection of artwork (in addition to the piece in question), another surprise. One meaningful example of this church’s treasures: there was a crucifix in one of the side chapels. It was rather plain, but above it, there was a fresco of Adam and Eve being banished from the garden of Eden, with a dry, leafless, dead tree in the background. Oh the symbolism! A final unexpected gift: when I turned to leave, the back wall had a gorgeous depiction of the crucifixion. Normally that space is reserved for tombs and boringness. This church was a real treat.

Completely unrelated, I accidentally went to a “youth Mass” held in English on Tuesday. This adds to my suspicion that any good thing can be immediately rendered undesirable by inserting the word “youth” (or some fitting variation) in front of it. Try it. But it wasn’t a waste of time! Obviously, it was a Mass, so it wasn’t a waste of time. But it was also a great experience because, as far as I could tell, no one participating in said Mass (except for me) was actually a native English speaker. The most amusing result of this was that Isaiah 11:7’s beautiful imagery got changed to “the cow and the beer shall be neighbors.” I won’t say that one can improve on the Word of God, but if one could, this would be the best way to go about doing so. Since why not, here’s a picture of the place:

And it’s not even a titulus (although I thought it might be for a moment, because two OTHER San Lorenzi in this city are).          

Somewhat egotistically, I am proud to announce that I have now visited over 100 different churches in Rome, not counting repeats. I will be calculating my per-diem average at some point soon, in the hopes of converting my pride to slight disgust. 

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Trains, boats and lots of walking

The common thread of this weekend’s trip to Padova was that it was a very relaxing time. This was in part due to the fact that Padua is a relatively small city, and so it’s not bursting at the seams with activities that demand doing. There are, of course, some sights that really are must-sees. So, I will describe those, and then I think it will be most profitable to just sum up general themes. I visited Venice on Saturday, so I’ll take the same general approach with that city.

Right, the first thing one must visit in Padova is the Scrovegni chapel. There are no photos allowed inside, but I would highly recommend Google searching “Padova Scrovegni Chapel,” (if you’re really too lazy to do that yourself, I’ve even done it for you here) or visiting a virtual tour site such as this. Seriously, I highly recommend it. It’s an amazing space decorated entirely by Giotto frescoes. I was smart and booked the very first slot for the day, which had two advantages. First, I was the only person in there for most of the time. I really mean the only one: the guard decided at some point that I wasn’t a threat and left for coffee or something. It was also nice to be there early because I got to stay well over my allotted 20 minutes, since nearly nobody else was there. The ticket for this also let me into the museum nearby, so I enjoyed some other priceless paintings and works of cultural heritage for a while, but it really wasn’t the same.

The next incredible place in Padova is the basilica dedicated to St. Anthony, known as Il Santo. First, this place offers FIFTEEN Sunday Masses, if you include the four prefestivi on Saturday. I don’t know if there’s some sort of Guiness World Records category for this, but there should be. OK, more impressive than that is the place itself. Not just because there are FIFTEEN SUNDAY MASSES (seriously), it’s a very prayerful place. I spent a lot of quality time with St. Anthony. Conducive to this, it is also very beautiful. Though there are innumerable “no photo” signs, and some Italians in suits who wag their fingers at you, I persisted resolutely and pretended to be confused.

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And besides, this is just a side chapel anyway. But, on the same note, this is just a side chapel!! What an awesome church.

Also of note was the Baptistery of the Duomo. Walking into this large room is like waking up from a fitful slumber (economics class?) and remembering that the world is real, and full of more colors than you could have imagined. It’s like a sunbeam piercing through rainclouds and illuminating a patch of green in a sea of gray. It’s like exploding some Baroque church and using all the needless bits of color to create something meaningful. OK, it’s not really like that at all, but it just feels GOOD. The colors are intensely rich and vibrant, yet cohesive and balance. The depiction of the figures is masterful. I may have been listening to the ending of Shostakovich 4 while writing this, so perhaps my mind is being overly ethereal; I’m going to let the art speak for itself.

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If you think it’s hard to get a picture of your family where no one’s blinking, looking weird or about to sneeze, imagine how tough this must have been!

The Duomo itself was unimpressive, although I must say I loved the spiritualism embedded in the design of the altar. Here’s my take. The artist starts with the principle that proper reverence mandates that one bow to the altar. Standard churchey stuff, no big problem. The artist then thinks to himself, “Dude, like, what is the essence of a bow anyway? It’s totally a sign of humility and deference, right man? Trippy stuff” (I tried to preserve a general sense of the syntax in translating from Italian). The artist then concludes that, if the goal is to encourage humility among the faithful, what could be more humiliating than having to bow to a hideous, ugly bland of marble? From this logic, I give you this altar.

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Take the exact opposite of whatever florid language my Shostakoviched brain used for the baptistery and you about sum up this place.

Most of the rest of Friday was spent just wandering about in the cold. Almost all of the buildings have little arched walkways in front of them, which gives the city a very hospitable and neighborly feeling. There’s a large, lovely open place called Prato della Valle, which is full of Christmas decorations but I still enjoyed. I happened upon a church dedicated to Saint Mary of Health–still much needed at this point–and the (supposed) resting place of St. Luke the Evangelist, so there were many opportunities for prayer and meditation. I also had a delicious lunch for probably 2/3 what it would cost in Rome. First there was some pasta described by several adjectives I didn’t recognize (always a good sign) flavored by pesto and shrimp; next, I asked for a second plate that was typical of the region. I got some rather boring cold cuts and some quite tasty cheeses; of course, this was all consumed with a delicious regional wine.

That the meat was cold could very well demonstrate the first theme of the day: it was cold. I suppose that’s what happens when you go north. But that was a minor theme. The really cool part of the city (hehehe) was that there were so many amazing frescoes. The Scrovegni, the Baptistery, and Il Santo were just a few examples from a city overflowing with beauty. Even the little unspellable-on-your-first-attempt Chiesa degli Eremitani (Church of the Hermits) housed great wall-work. All I would add to this was that the city’s atmosphere was also a recurring joy of the day. It was full of happy, welcoming people; I felt safe wandering about at all sorts of odd hours, as is my wont.

Take all of these themes and negate them (except for the coldness), and there you have Venice in a nutshell. Venice was the most depressing place I have been to in the course of my European tenure (possibly even including Caravita). I will admit that it was very noticeably the touristic offseason (and maybe the very fact that this was so painfully noticeable made me dislike the city), but I think Venice appeals to people largely on sentimental levels of which I am not capable. This church is a very fitting allegory for the city: a pretty facade on a rather ugly body, except even the facade now looks deteriorated and grimy.

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Oh, except there aren’t any noticeable parts falling off, and I was actually able to go inside.

I believe that a city’s churches reflect some pretty telling elements of its culture (and that’s not just because I love visiting churches). Venice was the first city I’ve visited where there was no way of entering most of the churches. Innumerable doors were locked or behind barriers without signs or postings of hours. And many of those that were open wanted large sums of money to get in! Even beyond that, most of them were decrepit from a lack of care. The culture has moved on to better things, like fashion and small dogs. As I said, depressing.

If any church is going to redeem Venice, it’s San Marco. This is the shining emblem of the city, one of the most recognizable places it has to offer. Though at least you can get in, when you do you are just immediately more depressed. The floor is caving in (this is what happens when A. you are pretentious and wealthy enough to build a city on underwater poles and B. then decide to neglect it); the arches are lopsided and look ready to collapse; it’s full of noise, even during Mass; even the lion–symbolizing St. Mark, who’s obviously a big deal in that church–looks horrified by the state of things.

Moments later, he burst into big tiley tears and flew away to go see if there was any room in Palermo.

Being on a bus that was actually a boat was rather cool, I suppose (even if the ticket system is practically designed to be cheated). There was a church dedicated to Santa Maria della Salute too (still needed). And, one of the churches I visited had this cool candle stand (even though I had to wait for at least fifteen minutes for the orcs to return so it would start glowing again):

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Although, I will have you notice, it literally doesn’t even hold a light to Padua.

OK, I’m not going to get into all the reasons I disliked Venice. Some are historical (I am a quarter Croatian…), many were aesthetic, even more were sheer principles that probably wouldn’t make much sense outside my head and would take a long time to explain anyway (though that was an alternative title that I considered for this blog). So I returned to Padua slightly early, relaxed for a bit, had some low-quality pizza and drinks (liturgical new-year, after all…) and saw the stars before going to bed. Seriously, you can see the stars in Padua. What a great place.

You can also see the moon!

Other notable astronomical sightings included what I’m somewhat confident was a planet and what I’m even more confident was an airplane.

This was Sunday morning. I went to one of the FIFTEEN MASSES at Il Santo, headed to the train station, and waited for fifty minutes for mine to arrive. The worst part of this was the freezing cold. NO, wait, the worst part was that two other trains to Rome came during that span, but I couldn’t get on those ones. NO, wait, the real worst part was that there was a church I wanted to visit but told myself I didn’t have time to (it only opened half an hour before my scheduled departure). But unlike the other time I’ve experienced a 50 minute delay (I love trenitalia so much.), this one got in just about on time, so I must hold that to their credit.

It was a great trip. I loved Padua. Even though Venice was not my favorite, I’m glad I experienced it anyway (though I’ve used that same exact line for many a vegetable–and I’m still not sure if that’s an insult to Venice or to vegetables).

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December 2, 2013 · 11:00 pm

Problem? Blame Piazza di Spagna.

One of the many loveable features of Rome is that, no matter what your schedule is, there is a Mass you can make it to during just about every hour of the day (unless you only happen to be free between 1-3 PM, when even Jesus appears to be on break for pranzo). This past Monday, however, put this theory of mine to the test.

Since Monday was the feast day of Saint Catherine of Alexandria, I decided to go to a church dedicated to another Virgin and Martyr, Sant’Agnese fuori le Mura. As is the case with many of these “outside the wall” ventures, the only way to visit this church is to take a sojourn on the dreaded B line. One can usually avoid this sad, sad experience, because it is the non-touristy line and as such goes to places that no one in their right mind would want to see anyway. Also as such, however, it receives much less care than the precious A line. What I’m really saying is that Piazza di Spagna is to blame for all my problems, including the fact that this venture didn’t work out. Yes, there was no train on the B line for twenty minutes due to “technical issues” at one of the stations. So, I was very late for the Mass I’d been planning on attending, and my conscience wouldn’t allow me to receive Communion without being present for at least some of the Liturgy of the Word… Of course, the experience wasn’t a total waste of time, since I got to pray in this lovely space, and at the crypt where St. Agnes is buried.

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I am having a really hard time captioning this one, so for lack of something better to say, IT’S NOT EVEN ADVENT. STOP PLAYING CHRISTMAS MUSIC. That is all.

My other motive for coming to this church was the nearby Mausoleum of Santa Costanza. This is technically a church, in the same way that the Pantheon is: there’s an altar, but its main function is to show that the Christians are better than the Romans. Ha. So there. Also like the Pantheon, it’s big and round and its most dome-inant feature is, well, its cupola.

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I was also going to make a mosaic pun, but I heard those went out of s-tile in the fourth century.

So, I returned to my dorm and made plans to attend a Mass in the evening. This church is on the indefatigable A line, so I arrived with plenty of time. But, the website had failed to mention that it was closed until at least the end of the year for repair work. I was informed that I could pay 6 euros to see the crypt, but there was no Mass. I vented some steam by visiting the nearby San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, which also has a cool dome (but no more puns, I promise).

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Is everyone sitting down? Yes? Good, here goes: this is an example of Baroque done well.

Wondering when and how my life had turned into a really bad Sit Com without my noticing, I planned Mass at yet another church. This one was only accessible by bus, so I planned buckets of extra time into my journey. Rome laughed. None of the several buses that would have taken me there came for fifteen minutes. I was starting to worry, but not severely: there was still enough time. Rome cackled. All of a sudden, there was an accident or something that had traffic backed up substantially and turned out to be severe enough that they were redirecting the bus route. Mamma mia. When it became futile, I ditched the bus and sprinted to another church nearby that I recalled had a Mass at the same time, and made it just a minute or so late—which is actually early in Italian time, so I was content.

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The bald guy’s scalp is more interesting than this apse. Seriously.

While the apse is undeniably hideously Baroque, there were many redeeming and beautiful pieces of art in the side chapels. Additionally, there was Eucharistic Adoration held after the Mass, which I desperately needed after the day’s events. I stayed until the twitch in my eye died down a little, and then headed off to “Theology on Tap” at the local Irish pub. Though beer and theology have the potential to create one of the best combinations man has yet discovered, I felt like the conversation got rather sidetracked, and several factors of the atmosphere were non-conducive to great discussion. Of course, this was probably all Piazza di Spagna’s fault. But, beer is still beer, and it was a nice evening regardless!

My only adventure was an inadvisably early Mass at a church called Sant’Onofrio. This was a bit of a leap of faith, as the only scrap of information I could find online about Mass times was on a website not affiliated with the church. Hoping to avoid getting up before the sun without due cause, I sent an email several days in advance to the address listed on the diocese’s site (which, perhaps after this blog, is the worst website on the Internet). And, here’s the kicker: I sent it in ITALIAN! I was so proud of myself, and they didn’t even respond. This left me wondering if my Italian was just indecipherable or if the people running the church were just incompetent. After attending the Mass (which did, in fact, exist), I decided resolutely that it was the latter. There were some questionable (and also some definitely not OK) things going on in the liturgy. BUT, the church is up on a hill (a real hill, not one of the 7), and so I did get a great view of the sunrise over Rome. And, it features some gorgeous frescoes, a rare treat in Rome. 

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The monk rushed me out after Mass (probably because he had more liturgies to devastate), so I apologize that it’s blurry.

This whole adventure was undertaken with a dear friend of mine. Shared suffering builds bonds, I guess. Pastries, hot chocolate and good conversation also build bonds, so the morning was on whole a great experience.

For the rest of Tuesday and continuing through press time, I’ve been very busy and very sick, so I haven’t had many adventures worth relating. Although, this morning the RAs of our building cooked us a delicious American brunch in celebration of Thanksgiving. And, after this, sick (literally) and tired of Piazza di Spagna ruining everything, I hopped on a train headed to Padova! So, many more adventures to come.

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