Of course, I am already home by now, and the title's Wednesday was eight days ago. I still find myself thinking, "One week ago I was in Rome," and feeling the sensations slip back into the past. They are still, barely, in the immediate memory -- I can still hear the ear-piercing tones peculiar to Roman ambulances, taste the supplì, feel the slick basalt of dinner-plate-sized Roman paving stones under the soles of my sandals. But they are quickly retreating into the fog of interpretation and selection.
For some reason, I keep thinking of those cobblestones -- not the ancient ones, but the rough, recent, square-cut ones, palm-of-hand-sized, that pave so many modern Roman streets in a pattern of overlapping arcs. I would like to hold one in my hand.
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Tuesday after the Scala Santa trip, I gathered my energy, hoisted myself off the bed, and went with my Two Big Boys (with a younger sister and then two younger brothers, the 14- and 10-year-olds are going to be stuck to that moniker) to hop the bus to Trajan's Market.
We learned about Trajan's Market well in advance of our trip, and it was one of the ancient constructions the boys had talked repeatedly about visiting in person. Said to be the Western world's first shopping mall, it did not disappoint.
It's hard to tell, when you're in it, which parts are truly ancient and which had been altered afterwards. Such a large and versatile building -- it couldn't help but to be used for various purposes over the years, and its various users changed it. For example, a religious order used it as a convent for some time; while the nuns had it in their possession, they put a floor across the second level of the great hall's atrium, acquiring more floor space. The floor has since been removed.
Furthermore, it's had some restoration work done to it -- missing blocks of travertine sidewalk were replaced, for instance.
And still furthermore, one of the old tabernae (shops) still serves its ancient purpose -- it hosts a cash register, shelves of coffee-table books, and racks of souvenirs.
Still, I believe the bones of the building are there.
I was struck by how much sunlight and air streams into the building. The windows in the great hall are aligned with the upper windows in the tabernae to let a great deal of light into what otherwise would be dark little cells.
There are three levels of Roman roads in the market -- they pass over and around it. One is called the Via Biberata, possibly because beverages were sold in many of the shops that line it. The sidewalks make it feel, well, very like a modern street; our bodies felt at home strolling along the second-level road.
The low partial walls show that once the road was not so airy, but enclosed on the other side by a rank of shops mirroring the opposite ones.
On the upper levels there are sunny terraces, where we felt a fresh September breeze, and could look out onto the pavement of what once was an interior space. The floor-tiling pattern of circles and squares resembles the one in the Pantheon.
The boys and I wandered around, wondering. We agreed that, though we had learned about the architecture of the market and knew quite a bit about it, there was really nothing that could replace the experience of walking through and around it. We could see how the light came in to the little shops, how the great hall filled with people, how steps led from one level to another and how one might stroll down the street, checking out the contents of the shops.
(In one, roped off, were stored stacks of child-sized chairs and folding tables. In another, ranks of pottery and statue-parts, numbered and labeled. Others were empty except for sunbeams, and the dark quiet air inside that carried a strange and mildly unpleasant odor. Still others were closed off with wooden doors.)
We couldn't stay too long because I had left the baby back at the apartment with Mark and the other two children. We were sorry Mark had missed it, but he really needed to rest, and was glad to have had the rest.
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The next morning I was off early in a cab with the same two boys, plus the baby, to the Galleria Borghese. I barely managed to get tickets for the gallery in time to see it before we left. The Galleria Borghese is a jewel of a museum, and its handlers strictly limit entry: 360 visitors at a time, and the visits are limited to two hours. In between they empty the museum.
We encountered many paintings that we enjoyed that day -- we were all struck by Raphael's Entombment (here) and by an unknown artist's Judgment of Solomon (pic here) as well as a number of other things. There are a lot of the Madonna-and-Child, some of which are really innovative and sweet, and a number of the Holy Family: the gesture of Joseph in this one touched my 14yo.
But we were really there for the Berninis: the four great commissions of Apollo and Daphne; David; The Rape of Proserpine; and Aeneas, Anchises, and Ascanius. Each time we encountered one, we walked around and around and around it for many minutes, marveling at the way they each fit together as a whole. A high-quality photograph is good enough to appreciate most paintings; it is reasonably good as a means of communicating a single detail of a sculpture, if the lighting is well-chosen; but there is no substitute for walking around a sculpture to grasp it as a complete work.
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I experienced one important first in the Galleria Borghese. There aren't many chairs or benches in there. This was the first time I asked someone to move off the only available chair (she was perusing a guidebook, and didn't catch a hint) so that I could sit and nurse a baby who badly needed it.
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After the gallery, we considered catching a taxi back (buses and trams were on strike), but since it was a lovely day, we instead walked the whole way south through Villa Borghese and then continued south to our apartment near the river. It was pleasantly hot, so that the shade of the enormous green park was welcome, and so too were the Cokes and gelatos we stopped for along the way.
First we stopped at Piazza del Popolo, where we entered into the church that hosts the famous Caravaggios, St. Peter's Crucifixion and St. Paul's conversion. I love that particular pair, how they work together: each an inversion, with Saul off his horse reaching up, and Peter being upended on his cross; the haunches of the horse, the haunches of the figure bending under Peter's cross; one a Christian life's beginning, the other an end; the cramped horizontals, suggesting subjects too big to cram into a single side chapel.
The boys and I took our time. We looked into the expensive designer shops along the Via del Corso; my sons were interested in pocketknives, I in leather goods. We passed the Spanish Steps, crowded with tourists even on this day out of season.
At one point the road was blocked off by tape, except for a narrow sidewalk on either side. They were repaving the street. First we passed a gaping hole in the dirt (and couldn't help but peep in, imagining we might see some ancient artifact); then a place where the dirt was filled in; later, where it was smoothed over, a level bed; finally, the place where the workmen, now perhaps at lunch, had been setting rank after rank of those rough cubes of gray stone that make the cobbles of the streets all over Rome.
The cobbles were loose in the last rank, and they lay about in piles. The piles were unattended and I temporarily entertained the idea of bending over, picking up one fist-sized cobble, and slipping it into my handbag. I would take it home with me in my carry-on luggage, and at home I would unpack it, and leave it lying about on my schoolroom counter. A paperweight, a relic, a piece of the streets.
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I didn't steal a paving stone that day. But here at home, surrounded by my own belongings, I'm not entirely sure I don't regret it.