Sinners, repent!

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The piazza was crawling with women. I would have felt like a
kid in a candy store, had they not all been wearing habits. It
was a muted rainbow of black, white, blue and brown veils waving
in the wind, as the young women alternately giggled and cheered.
They reminded me of the teens in clips of the first Beatles
concerts, both in their giddiness and in the sense that they
properly belonged in some different era. But the man inspiring
their enthusiasm was not from Liverpool. He was the frail,
octogenarian leader of a billion Catholics. And his fans had come
not just to revel, but to repent as well, in a city which melds
reveling and repentance like few others. The Wednesday morning Papal audience is usually the high point
of a trip to Rome for the pilgrimtourist. But this week was
different. This was Settimana Santa – Holy Week, the
crescendo of the Christian calendar. Wednesday was only the
beginning of a string of church services at St Peter’s. It
was my fifth trip to Rome, so the wideeyed wonder that marks the
firsttime visitor had eased a bit. The list of must-see sites
that had governed my first visits – the Vatican museums, the
Piazza di Spagna, the Forum – gave way to the aimless
wandering through which Rome truly reveals herself. More than any other time of the year, Holy Week sees a mixing
of holiday and pilgrimage. Men and women in clerical garb make
their way through groups of university students on spring break,
camerawielding tourist packs, and Clark Griswold-esque families
following a tight program from the Trevi Fountain to Piazza dei
Populi. Yet in the face of this relentless movement, this city
conserves its secrets in shadows and quiet light. Nineteenth
Century pastel buildings crowd narrow streets, with angles that
even at the height of day frustrate the sun. The calmness is
never totally overcome. Whether holiday or pilgrimage, I can never come through Rome
without a visit to the Spanish steps. From the top of the steps,
one can see the dome of St Peter’s and the white marble
heights of the monument to Vittorio Emmanuele, the father of the
modern Italian state. After a moment reflecting on the skyline, I
stroll down to the Cappuccin Church, known for the macabre
display of centuries-old monastic bones in its crypt. In it,
skeletons in monastic robes stand watch over the inscription
‘What you are, we once were, and what we are, you too will
be’. The guitars are just out of earshot. Of Rome’s many layers, faith would seem to have been
squeezed by the tectonic shifts of politics and culture: the
former with the unification of Italy and the end of the Papal
States in 1870s, and the latter in an ongoing struggle between
tradition and progress. This means a richness, one that lives in
each step across the cobbled stones of Campo dei Fiori in the
southern part of the city centre, where I spend the late
afternoon. There is nothing reserved here – all is sound and
movement, swirling around the ancient figure of a hooded Giordano
Bruno, clutching a book in both hands. His head is bowed, toward
the Vatican, but in judgement rather than reverence. His
judgement is on the Vatican authorities who had him burned for
his theological ‘errors’ at a stake set in that very
place. Yet now it seems – with the Enlightenment perhaps
vindicating his obstinacy – he should be looking up and
gloating about history’s judgement. That such a statue
stands in Rome’s centre suggests the uneasy relationship
that remains between the city’s temporal and spiritual
leaders. I make my way south from the city centre, keeping my map in my
bag, wondering which of the city’s four hundred churches
will appear before me around the next curve. After a day of
wandering, following the Pope’s morning audience, I find
relief from the hordes across the river to the south, in the
Trastevere section of the city – so named for its location
across the Tiber River, or ‘Tevere’. In the Piazza di
Santa Maria in Trastevere, lights blink on to meet the twilight.
Tables spill out of restaurants along with smells that will
capture not just the stomach but the soul. The Piazza is alive
with a spirit very different from St Peter’s in the morning.
Replete with habits of a different sort, it is more of revelling
than repentance. Around the fountain at its centre, carefully
coiffed young Italian men summon their charms to woo
scarlet-haired goddesses. These women will catch your eye and
vanish like dreams so intoxicating it hurts to wake up. While this goes on, the Church of Santa Maria rises up in the
square’s southwest corner. Its face is darkened with age,
and with the thick blackness of modernity that hangs in the air.
The church is open late during Holy Week. Inside, in dark corners
defined by clusters of flickering flame, searching souls kneel
alone. Their moving lips suggest that on this night, in this
place, solitude may be more complicated than it first appears.
Curious passers–by wander in. Some step purposefully, as if
to assert themselves. For others, steps falter for fear of
violating something – some space from another time. One woman dressed for a night out makes her way up the aisle,
craning her neck at the carvings on the ceiling as if in a
museum. Then she slips into an empty pew. Light flickers on
golden mosaics, multiplying the force of the flame. She sits
quietly.ARCHIVE: 6th week TT 2004 

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