I am not remotely a religious person. And yet, when I travel through Italy, churches are some of my favorite places to visit. Not just for their art and history, but because these sacred spaces can inspire great emotions even among people who don’t share the same beliefs. Every time I walk into an historic church, I marvel at the devotion of the people who built it, at how they believed in something so much that they wanted to build such monumental and beautiful structures. I’m an atheist, but I respect devotion.
I am also no scholar of history. But when I visit Italy I can’t get enough of the remnants of bygone eras, whether they’re ancient ruins or palaces that were once the residence of a noble family and are now cut up into offices or apartments. I feel the current of all those who came before, people who worked in or lived in those spaces, like a tangible wire connecting me to the past. It’s a profound thing for me, having been born in such a young country, to walk on the same cobblestones that were on that street thousands of years ago.
This month’s Italy Roundtable topic is MOVED, and – as you might be able to tell – I am moved by Italy’s history and its churches. So when the two come together, it can be a bit overwhelming.
Especially when I consider the path that got me there.
The first time I went to Prague, in 1992, it was relatively-newly-liberated from Soviet rule – Czechoslovakia was still one country. I traveled with my Swiss cousin, whose native German and smattering of Russian words turned out to be indispensable – we met very few people who spoke English.
How, then, we happened upon the old Jewish quarter of the city, how we knew to go visit those sites at all, I have no idea.
What I do remember is walking through the old Jewish cemetery, in which bodies had been buried as many as 12 layers deep, such was the scarcity of space (Jews not being allowed to expand their cemetery). I remember the profusion of gravestones, crowded in at uncomfortable angles, most with several rocks resting on them in the Jewish tradition. I remember seeing the beautifully-preserved synagogues, marveling at the ornate interior of the Spanish Synagogue and the austere facade of the 13th-century Old-New Synagogue.
And then I remember my insides buckling when I learned that the only reason I could see these historic monuments today, the only reason they were still standing, was that Hitler wanted to preserve the neighborhood as a sort of museum to what he thought would one day be an extinct race.
In a way, we have Hitler to thank for the preservation of the Jewish quarter of Prague.
Let that sink in for a minute.
The first time I walked into the Roman Forum, I’ll admit – I was a little disappointed.
I have a hard time seeing what is not there, and that’s not limited to the ruins of ancient temples (particularly when I have only the faintest idea what an ancient temple might have looked like). I had a good tour guide, and I had bought a copy of Rome: Past and Present with its immensely helpful graphic overlays – but it was still hard for me to imagine that area full of rock piles, broken columns, and crowds of modern visitors as the epicenter of the once mighty Roman Empire.
The only bright spot in that regard in the Forum was the Curia Julia – the Senate building – some of which looks much like it did when it was actually the Senate building in the 1st century BCE. Peering into that room (you weren’t allowed to walk on the ancient marble floor) gave me a small hint of what ancient Roman buildings might have looked like.
And then I walked into the Pantheon, and I almost cried.
There’s no such thing as “seeing the Pantheon too many times,” in my book. On my last Italy trip, I visited on four separate occasions in the space of about 10 days in Rome. The Pantheon is, without a doubt, my favorite building in all of Rome – and a serious contender for the “all of Italy” top spot, too – because there is nothing so moving for me as walking (almost literally) in the footsteps of ancients.
The Pantheon doesn’t look 100% today as it did when it was first built (case in point: the spectacular coffers on the domed ceiling were probably once filled with bronze decorations, which some believe were removed and melted down in the 17th century so Bernini could build his monumental baldacchino for St. Peter’s Basilica), but enough of it remains untouched by alterations that it’s much easier for my brain to shoot back 2,000 years and really picture ancient Rome.
Simply thinking about all the feet that have walked across the floor before me over the past two millennia is enough to bring a lump into my throat nearly every time I stand underneath that perfect dome.
Now, why did the Curia Julia and Pantheon survive over so many centuries? Why did they not become easy quarries like so many other nearby structures – including the Colosseum, which we now think of as sacrosanct? Those buildings weren’t wonders of the world back then, they were just unused and crumbling monuments, and people were master recyclers. You’ll find a random ancient stone or two in more modern construction all over Italy. But the Pantheon and Curia Julia were spared. Why?
Because, in both cases, they were consecrated as Christian churches.
The Curia Julia became the Basilica of Sant’Adriano al Foro in the 7th century CE. It was deconsecrated in the 1930s and is no longer a church, but of course by that point the wisdom of saving ancient monuments wasn’t in question. The Pantheon, built in the 2nd century CE, was consecrated as the Church of St. Mary and the Martyrs in the early 7th century CE and is still a church today. Sure, modifications to the existing monuments were made – the Pantheon has apses that aren’t original, for instance – but consecrating an existing structure certainly saved early Christians from the hard work of building from the ground up.
Where this gets interesting is that Christianity was illegal in Rome until the 4th century CE. Prior to that time, Christians in Rome were arrested and killed in large numbers. But in the year 313 CE, the Roman Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity. This not only put a stop to the arrests and executions of Christians, it meant that Christianity became the only legal religion in Rome by the end of the century.
And, of course, this anti-paganism meant temples were torn down. Except, that is, when they weren’t considered temples anymore.
In other words, we have Christianity to thank for the preservation of some ancient Roman buildings.
Ancient Romans didn’t hold all their monuments dear. The center of the Colosseum was used as a cemetery by the 6th century. The arches were turned into houses and businesses, and used as such up until the 12th century. The outer ring, you see, served a similar defensive purpose as a city wall. Romans recycled the marble and brick inside the great amphitheater for the houses they built inside it, and then – when they eventually moved on from living in a tiny, walled city – they took those building blocks with them.
It took another group – Christians – to come in and declare the Pantheon worth preserving by turning it into a church. They dedicated it to a religion that so moved them that they endured years of persecution rather than go back to their old gods. While I don’t believe in the god that so moved those early Christians, I am thankful they believed so that I can now set foot inside the Pantheon, walk into a living historical monument, and cry.
To be honest, it’s hard for me to give the early Christians a pass completely, though, when they turned around and did to the pagans exactly what the pagans had done to them for so long, but at least I can sort of understand their motivation. Obviously, Hitler’s motivation for preserving Prague’s Jewish quarter is infinitely darker and his actions impossible to justify.
It must also be said that the Jews of Prague did not abandon their homes and cemeteries and synagogues willingly. They were not recycling building materials from their ancient monuments for new apartments. At this point in the braid, the threads cannot be brought together. The two realities were too devastatingly divergent.
But because two outside groups – one in Prague and one in ancient Rome – intervened and saved things they did not create, those things still exist today. The structures still stand. The history survives.
And because of that, the light can get in.
We can bear witness, we must bear witness – to everything, including the messy circumstances that got us there – and be moved.
What’s moving my Italy Roundtable cohorts this month? Click along with me through to the following links to read each of their posts – and please leave comments, share them with your friends, and tune in next month for another Italy Blogging Roundtable topic!
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