Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Ancient Stones

In 1978 I made a trip to Rome. Rome, Italy. Not Rome, New York. I had wanted to visit Rome since childhood. I had always been entranced by ancient Rome. A feeling of astonishment mingled with joy always attended my contemplation of books about the ancient city. I had especially wanted to see the Pantheon, an ancient temple in the heart of Rome that is the most perfectly preserved of all ancient Roman structures -- and next to the Coliseum, the most famous. It is made of brick and covered with a huge concrete dome. The exterior of the Pantheon remains much as it always was. The interior, however, was thoroughly looted of its marble, its bronze statues, its precious coffering and ornaments.

For some time after I arrived in Rome I stayed away from the Pantheon. It daunted me, that somber edifice. I preferred to wander in the modern city, imperfect, blaring. The weight and moment of those bricks and mortar promised to make the business of seeing them a complicated one. So much converges there. It's what we've rescued from the madness. Beauty, dignity, order, proportion. There are obligations attached to such a visit.

Then there was the question of its renown. I saw myself walking the rough streets of central Rome, past the discos, the handbag shops, the rows of bamboo chairs. Slowly, out of every bending lane, in waves of color and sound, came tourists in striped sneakers, fanning themselves with postcards, the lovers of Rome, laboring through the streets, vastly unhappy, mingling in one unbroken line to the monumental piazza in front of the Pantheon.

What ambiguity there is in exalted things. We despise them a little.

I kept putting off a visit. The building stood apart from the hissing traffic like some monument to doomed expectations. I'd turn a corner, adjusting my stride among jostling shoppers, there it was, the tanned concrete riding its mass on the concrete of the Piazza San Macuto. I'd dodge a packed bus, there it was, at the edge of my field of vision.

One night (as we enter narrative time) I was riding in a bus back to my hotel after dinner and we, the passengers, seemed to be lost in some featureless zone when the driver made a sharp turn into a one-way street, and there it was again, directly ahead, the Pantheon, floodlit for an event, some holiday or just the summer sound-and-light, floating in the dark, a gray fire of such clarity and precision I was startled into sharp awareness.

We sat there a moment, considering this vision. It was a street in decline, closed shops and demolition, but the buildings at the far end framed the temple perfectly. Someone at the back of the bus said something, then a car came toward us, horn blowing. The driver stuck an arm out the window to gesture. Then his head appeared, he started shouting. The structure hung ahead of us like a star lamp. I gazed a moment longer and the driver proceeded down the street.

I asked the person next to me what the man had called the bus driver.

"Masturbator. It's standard. An Italian will never say anything he hasn't already said a thousand times."

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