If you are drinking water from the fountain in the Piazza di Spagna in Rome, you should climb to the top of the Spanish steps, turn left, stop at the hilltop cafe to buy a lemon gellato, then walk another 500 steps up the bricked tree-lined walkway. All at once, the trees part, and you will find yourself standing on the garden terrace of the Medici Princes. It is the balcony of Rome, and from where you are standing, you can see everything.
To your right is the Vatican, the towering dome of St. Peter’s Basilica, the cathedral that birthed the Protestant Reformation. On the far side to your left, you can see the ruins of Imperial Rome, the city of the Caesars, just peeking out between and above the apartments and buildings. The arch and block architecture of Rome’s 1st empire on the left, and the dome and spire architecture of Rome’s 2nd empire on the right, and the whole city between is echo and cadence on those two themes.
The city is flowing with water. Every fountain in the city is fed directly from the Roman aqueduct, restored and doubled in capacity some 300 years ago. Is is fresh, clean drinking water, cool even on hot days, and the pride of the city. Romans will smile, and point to it, and say “Drink, drink! Is good!” Place your hand on the marble thigh carved by Bernini, stick your head into the stream of water, and drink!
Rome invites you inside her history. I expected ropes and barricades, a history to be viewed and appreciated, but never touched, not stepped on, or leaned up against, or drenched under. Instead, I placed my hand on wall etched with an ichthus 1700 years ago, deep in the catacomb tunnels. When I was tired, I sat down on the marble foot of a column set in place by Raphael when he was the lead architect of St. Peter’s Basilica. I sat on a wooden bench in the Sistine chapel where Michelangelo paused to eat his lunch, those few days he did pause, while painting The Final Judgement on the front wall of the chapel.
Every ancient thing in the city is in the city, in the midst of a teeming and vital urban center, with people living their lives, just as people have lived their lives since the tribes of the Three Hills first met together to trade in the sunken valley that would later become the Forum. Rome is not a museum. Her bones are wrapped in flesh.
Every ancient thing is a monument, a starting point and a prop in the telling of some great story, some story that moved the rudder of history, that set in motion some important thing still echoing today. This church, designed by this artist who was smuggled out of the French court by this pope, which caused this war between Spain and France, which is why this region is part of France to this day. This platform, from which Marc Antony delivered his impassioned eulogy of Julius Ceasar, “Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ear,” which drove Brutus and Crassus from the city, opening a power vacuum in Rome that would be filled by Ceasar’s adopted son Octavian, whose ascent to the imperial throne sealed the fate of Rome as an empire ruled by tyrants, and no longer a republic. This dank and fetid hole, where Peter and Paul were chained to the wall for 19 months before being martyred for their faith. This archway, built in honor of Vespasian upon his return from Israel after destroying the temple in AD 70, the act that would cement his political power bloc and cloak him in purple, the act that would crush the national identity and religious center of Judaism for 1900 years. This chapel, where Michelangelo, the 33-year-old sculptor, who had never painted anything before, painted frescoes with such ferocity and realism that art changed around him.
Rome is the story of the church. She was incubated and born in Jerusalem, but she grew to maturity in Rome. Rome gave us engineering, architecture, and city planning. Rome gave us banking, and modern economic systems, and taught us how to build infrastructure. Rome is the story of the Renaissance, bankrolled in its prodigious infancy with papal commissions. Rome is a thousand stories, a hundred beginnings, all told with props and monuments that you can walk between, lay hand on, lead against, and on a hot day in July, splash your head beneath and drink deeply from.
Drink. Is good.
(click to see a slideshow of pictures from the whole tour.)