Buried in History

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In the summer of 2015, thanks to the generosity of friends, ex-students, and parents whose children I now teach, I spent a month in Rome.  Since my return to the United States, several friends and family members have asked me to record my general impressions of “the Eternal City.”  So here goes.

First, Rome offers any visitor a beautiful and perhaps appalling sense of the passage of time.  For 3,000 years, give or take a few hundred, human beings have lived here on the banks of the Tiber.  Consider what this means: 150 generations have lived, worked, loved, fought, and died in this place.  By contrast, my city of residence—Asheville, North Carolina—has existed for less than ten generations.  Even in that short time, Asheville has seen immense changes: suburbs where 200 years ago there were fields and forests, trolley-car tracks buried beneath asphalt highways, buildings and even entire neighborhoods demolished to make way for new buildings and highways.

As I navigated the Forum, perspiring in the noonday heat, or explored the dusty ruins of Ostia Antica, I often wondered what Asheville would look like in another 2,000 years.  Would a single building from this century remain standing?  If only a few antebellum homes remain there now, what would be left after another 2,000 years?  Would the city be racked, as Rome sometimes was, by fire, invasion, conquest?  Would the Basilica of Saint Lawrence, a national treasure, be buried below some neoplastic skyscraper built in the fourth millennium?  Would the storage cellar and laundry room of my stoutly built 80-year-old apartment building be excavated and declared a tourist attraction?

In Rome, this sense of being buried in history is most vivid when visiting the Basilica of San Clemente near the Colosseum.  You enter the 12th-century building, stroll about admiring the architecture and the Triumph of the Cross, a mosaic in the apse, and then pay an admission fee and descend the stairs to find another church, built during the fourth century and host to several Church councils, buried below.  In this church you find a picture gallery of mosaics dating from the 10th and 11th centuries, haunting paintings from a thousand years ago.  You then descend more stairs, and there in the cool darkness you find yourself viewing a Roman home, a living spring, a temple to Mithras, a room that possibly once served as an imperial mint, and a courtyard replete with brick arches.  And what lies below these ruins?  A field where ancient cattle grazed?  An encampment of early settlers?  The blackened embers of bonfires for some ritualistic religious celebration now lost forever in the mists of time?

In an hour’s time, you have toured 2,000 years of history.

To visit Rome, then, is to be reminded of the passage of time, of grandeur certainly, but also of collapse and ruin and death.

Then there is the glory of Rome.  By glory I do not mean the Forum or Colosseum, the many museums, the hundreds of churches, St. Peter’s Square, the Borghese Gardens, or the scores of other attractions.  These sites are all wonderful and deserving of our attention as human beings, but the glory I intend here is that of today’s Rome.

During my stay, I resided at the Hotel Due Torri.  The Due Torri is a three-minute walk from the Tiber and less than a ten-minute walk to the Pantheon and the Piazza Navona.  With the exception of two days spent outside of the city—side trips to Cascia and Ostia Antica—I explored Rome everywhere on foot.  Walking is the best way to discover this ancient city, and in my perambulations, I visited many famous sites.

In addition to these steps back into the past, however, I spent a good amount of time exploring the living Rome of the present: streets and piazzas, numerous shops, restaurants, taverns, gelato bars, bookstores, groceries, wine bars, and a laundry.  I sipped wine in sidewalk restaurants like Di Rienzo, which faces the Pantheon; several mornings I drank caffè freddo at one of the tables behind the Antico Caffè Greco, one of the oldest bars in Rome.  I ate nearly all my meals al fresco, either on my hotel terrace or in cafés watching the passersby, delighting in the mix of Italians and tourists, and taking pleasure in studying the people: shopkeepers; soldiers and carabinieri guarding various government buildings; men and women in immaculate dark suits, clearly part of the government or engaged in private enterprise; young people in their mid-20’s out for a night of revelry; old people treading carefully on the cobbled streets; waiters in formal attire; priests and nuns; cabbies and construction workers; and, of course, thousands and thousands of tourists like myself from all over the world.  At my hotel, I took the time to became acquainted with all the employees: Alessandra, who cleaned the rooms; the Peruvian Maria, who served breakfast when Nina left for her vacation; Laura, Enrico, and the others who operated the front desk.

What struck me most about the citizens of Rome was their dedication to work.  Tobacconists, vintners, jewelers, sellers of antiques, food vendors, grocery-store clerks, street hucksters: All of these people work extremely hard.  Despite record high temperatures, despite the hordes of tourists like myself, and despite the fact that most of these shops and cafés were at best minimally air-conditioned, those who staffed these establishments were amicable and outgoing.  They labored long hours, yet they greeted customers cheerfully, were patient with my own attempts at communication, and took pains to wrap the few gifts I bought with care.

A stranger and alone in this city, I observed these faces perhaps more closely than I might have if accompanied by a friend.  And what I saw on every face—the universal quality—was a hunger for life and for living.  The face of every stranger I passed—a thousand or two or three a day—wanted nothing more than recognition, asked for nothing more than acceptance as a human being.  Race, religion, nationality, occupation: These do matter, of course.  But the faces I saw when I took notice were human faces with human desires, human needs, human wants for love and understanding.

Now, not all of my impressions were so grandiose or so positive.  Italy currently faces serious social and economic problems, and I found evidence of these troubles in three different areas of Roman life.  Here I must add that I am no expert, so I will hedge my opinions with a strong dose of humility and a confession of my ignorance.

First was the housing.

In my neighborhood, and in all the parts of the city I reconnoitered on foot, the buildings on every street were old, at least by American standards, and were also pleasing to the eye.  The streets I walked, from the Vatican to St. John Lateran, from the Borghese Gardens to Trastevere, were winding, ancient, and lovely.

But these streets and these buildings make up only a part of Rome.  The half-hour train ride to Ostia Antica left a very different impression.  Our train passed miles of ugly neighborhoods: drab, low buildings painted yellow, brown, or white, many of them spattered with graffiti and nearly all crowned with a shrubbery of antennae and television dishes.  The terraces looked cluttered and dirty, and the yards had the beaten, unkempt look of rural American trailer parks.  Though it was a Saturday—many of the other passengers aboard the train were clearly bound for the beaches outside of Rome—the streets we passed were largely empty, the grass and shrubs burnt and scruffy, the pavements littered and dirty.  Here was a very different Rome, and one in which I would not care to live.

Next were the empty churches.

Churches in Rome are more tourist attractions than places of worship.  With the exception of the groups of foreign pilgrims found in the more famous churches, few people enter these churches to pray.  In front of the Blessed Sacrament with its red-lit vigil lamp, there might be one or two others besides myself seeking time with God.  In all the 30-odd churches I visited, those taking pictures with cellphones vastly outnumbered those praying in front of the Blessed Sacrament.

Sunday Mass offered the same sense of the diminution of worship among the Romans.  During the several times I attended Mass, both on Sundays and on some weekdays, none of the churches came close to being full.  At the Basilica of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, for example, where the body of one of my favorite saints, Catherine of Siena, is entombed beneath the altar, I attended Mass on the Saturday evening before returning to the United States.  Here in this Gothic basilica there were four priests on the altar and twenty-four of the faithful in the pews.  Six of these worshipers were under 30; the rest were over 50. 

Although 90 percent of Italians identify themselves as Catholic, less than a third of these actually practice their faith.  In other words, the majority of Italians still get baptized, many make their First Communion, those who marry often seek out a church, and the dead apparently still prefer being interred by a priest, but otherwise Italians stay away from churches.  These numbers, by the way, keep falling.

In addition to attendees at Mass, what I did not see in Rome were many children.

Like the rest of the countries of the European Union, Italy has a birthrate below replacement level.  This nominally Catholic country has one of the lowest birthrates on the Continent.  Since 1970, the Italian birthrate has dropped by half to about 1.46.  In February of this year, the Italian minister of health, Beatrice Lorenzin, announced that Italy is “a dying country.”  Since Italians now live well past 80 years, the average age in the country is about 44 and still on the ascent.

What do these statistics mean?

Never since the unification of Italy has the birthrate fallen so low, and this year for the first time will bring more deaths than births.  Nor does this trend toward childlessness show any sign of abating.  Those Italian couples I passed on the street, those couples I saw kissing beside the Tiber or holding hands as they swung along the Via del Corso, may one day marry, but most likely they will produce one, maybe two children per couple.

Various online commentators analyzing Lorenzin’s concerns and the birthrate ascribe this drastic situation to Italy’s legalized abortion, to high unemployment, to uncertainty about the economy.  Certainly, these factors could retard the birthrate, but I would offer a more commonsense analysis.  As I watched the pleasure-loving young Italians enjoying their meals and their trips to the beach, it struck me that many of them weren’t having children because they didn’t want to have children.  Children are messy, bothersome creatures who require constant attention.  No more clubbing, no more dining out, no more casual trips.

To some, this “birth dearth” may seem admirable, worthy of emulation.  After all, if the world has too many people, then surely a country reduced in population is worth imitating.  Surely, some might say, the Italians are leading us in the right direction.

Unfortunately, no.  Unless the situation changes drastically, the disaster that is coming to Italy will arrive within the next 20 to 30 years, if not sooner.  Italy’s retirement age is 59, though it will increase to 65 by 2030.  But even that won’t help much, because the average age of workers will creep into the upper 40’s.  Another 10 years, maybe 15, will produce a brigade of retirees, but only a platoon of young workers whose taxes must support those elderly folks.

Rome may well continue to live up to its reputation as the Eternal City.  Whether the Eternal City will continue to be inhabited by Italians remains to be seen.

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