The Rockford Files

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In the cathedrals of New York and Rome

There is a feeling that you should just go home

And spend a lifetime finding out just where that is

People understand catastrophes.  The everyday ebb and flow of history, in their own lives and in the world, is much harder for them to grasp.

That thought—hardly a revelation, once one pauses to think about it—came to me in the lower sanctuary of the Church of San Fermo in Verona.  For 15 years, I have taken part in various Rockford Institute Winter Schools and Convivia throughout Italy, and at some point on each trip our little band of travelers has found itself in a subterranean space that used to be firmly on the surface of the earth.  Often these structures are pagan temples or baths or even houses over which a later building—usually a church—has been erected.  In this case, the remarkably well-preserved fifth-century Church of San Fermo sits perhaps 12 feet below grade, crowned by an 11th-century Gothic church, also dedicated to San Fermo, that features a striking façade of red brick and yellow sandstone.

As I wandered through the lower sanctuary, admiring the mosaics of the early church and the frescoes installed around the time of the construction of the upper church, one of my traveling companions asked the inevitable question: “How did...

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