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Phespirit goes to Italy
Rome     February/March 2002

Just supposing, just imagine ..... What if all the fabulous treasures of Rome were brought together under one roof? All the paintings and sculptures, the carvings and castings, removed from all the churches and palaces, the public and private collections. It would make for a museum greater than any other museum in the world ..... but then isn't that precisely what Rome is: the greatest living museum on the planet?

Needless to say the Catholic churches are spectacular in their ornamentation, proliferation and bigness. Whilst the undisputed world heavyweight champion is sited in Vatican City there are sufficient variations throughout Rome to keep a dyed-in-the-wool atheist like Phespirit interested. Examples:

  1. San Clemente is a 12th century church, under which is a tomb-strewn 4th century church, below which is a 1st century BC Temple of Mithras where Roman men practiced a dubious fertility cult;
  2. Santa Maria in Domnica has a 9th century mosaic depicting Pope Paschal I, kneeling at the feet of the Virgin, with a square blue halo to indicate that he was still alive at the time of production;
  3. Scala Santa is a 28 step "holy staircase" allegedly swiped from the Jerusalem palace of Pontius Pilate, it having been frequented by Christ ..... the devout must ascend on their knees in prayer.

Now, what have the Romans ever done for us? Here, at the centre of empire, their legacy is preserved in ancient stone. The Colosseum compares favourably with its sisters at Nîmes and El Djem, although the experience is diminished by it already seeming so utterly familiar. Next door, the ruined townscape that was The Forum, awash with proud arches and tumbled temples, is altogether more absorbing, as is the less-cluttered, more-stately Palatine rising above. Circus Maximus is a ghost ..... and a fine album.

There are countless other spectacular remnants of a glorious past but, for Phespirit, the most wonderful is the Baths of Caracalla. This monumental edifice commands admiration for its silent dignity and faded splendour. It is the perfect romantic ruin for painters and poets, a magical mirage made manifest from a misty mind's eye ..... a place for peace and pause.

Phespirit followed his peace and pause with a quiet day spent strolling the Via Appia Antica, catching a 218 bus from Piazza di Porta San Giovanni to Domine Quo Vadis?, close to the northern extreme of the old Roman road. From this little church, Phespirit took a short detour to visit the Catacombs of Domitilla and San Callisto before rejoining the ancient route to follow its line for three kilometres from the Tomb of Cecilia Metella to the Villa Dei Quintili, beyond the Via di Tor Carbone; it is a joy to walk on a nice warm day with next to no traffic about. Heading back to Domine Quo Vadis?, Phespirit paused only to visit the Catacomb of San Sebastiano along the way. The lucky saint is entombed in the church at the site.

With all this beauty and art, church and state, pizza and ice cream, the only thing Phespirit missed was not being able to get a ticket for the Champions League match between Roma and Barcelona. Departing the city provided one last Roman spectacle as the streets around the Termini station were almost totally blocked by an anti-government left-wing youth rally. And finally: the purest spectrum sunset to savour as seen from the return flight to London. Most satisfactory.

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