Sunday, September 20, 2009

First Walk to the Catacombs of San Sebastiano, 18 September

It is disorienting traveling through Rome. Sight, sound, space, and time occur at continually alternating paces and scales: the tearing sound of Vespas punctuating the slow trickle of fountains; the exuberant plan of monumental space surrounded by crowded, spider-veined streets; the incessant kaleidoscope of the antique, medieval, baroque, and modern; the collusion of the urban and the rural. Very simply: there are no straight lines here, and my first walk to the catacombs sought to emphasize this.

The physical reality of having had to be buried outside the walls of ancient Rome cannot be conceptualized. The maps that I have been studying, however full of intrigue and delight, are poor ciphers. The human distances, the terrain of removal beyond the hills, the physical drain of visitation — these are things that can only be measured with one's feet. To this end, I decided that we would make our way through the old city first and then head out over the Celio into the campagna.

In my studio before leaving

We descended the Janiculum on the via Garibaldi and crossed the Tiber on the Ponte Palatino. After dashing across four lanes of careening Fiats, we puzzled briefly at the inaccessibility of the Temple of Vesta, and headed on to the Circus Maximus. My first reaction upon seeing the Circus was that I had been misinformed. Where were the stones and the walls, the crumbling capitals? Separating the Palatine and Aventine hills, the Circus is somewhat of an anti-climactic park when one is hopped up on the romance of decay. There is a large central depression bisected on the long axis by a raised berm, transforming the depression into more of a track or course. On the southwest side, the earth rises up toward the Aventine, forming a tiered seating section that runs the length of the Circus. Facing this is another, lower berm rising toward the Palatine. As we walked along the Palatine side, and walked, and walked, I became increasingly aware of the enormity of the place. It is a gigantic earthwork, a pre-historic depression possessed of a quiet monumentality, lying dormant among the clamoring ruins. The Circus is not a ruin. It is a memorial.

The Colosseum with the coffered ceiling of the Temple of Venus and Roma in the background

When we reached the end of the Circus, we turned northeast up the via San Gregorio toward the Arch of Constantine and the Colosseum. Traveling from the Republican dent in the ground, the Circus, to the magnificent Colosseum is a compact lesson in the genius of propaganda. A carnal will to empire coursed through me as we approached the complex. The triumphal Arch of Constantine comes fully into view first, but gradually cedes the foreground to the Colosseum. As you begin to round the Colosseum, Constantine is joined by the Arch of Titus and the beautifully coffered ceiling of the Temple of Venus and Roma in the background. The earth rises as you begin to ascend the Celio and the perspective shift seems to suggest that you can conquer the Colosseum, or at least understand the magnitude of vision that conceived it. You cannot. The structure is all consuming, drawing your attention as fire draws oxygen from the air. Looking back at the Colosseum from the top of the Celio, the via Claudia offers a direct view down to the ruin, which sits there, immovable, like an inescapable fact.

As you crest the hill, and the Colosseum recedes from sight, you realize that you have left the city. The via della Navicella takes you down the back side of the Celio. It is a busy thoroughfare, frenzied with people traveling to the southeast ring road and the Autostrada. In the contracted universe of Rome, this stretch of road has a completely different character than the city: it is suburban and subject to the rules of suburbia. The street is wider and more consciously landscaped, the cars more plentiful and unapologetic in their movements. The Commune's nursery is at the bottom of the hill and the orderly rows of plants in faux terra cotta planters feel perfectly at home there.

As quickly as the city transmutates into suburb on the Celio, the suburb gives way to the countryside the moment you turn off of the Piazalle Numa Pompilio and into the via di Porta San Sebastiano. The street is paved with cobble stones and fronted on both sides by high garden walls, over which the tops of pines are visible. The Forum is literally and figuratively very far away. It is here that you begin to understand the political and social distances that separated Jews and Christians from the Romans. The cemeteries or catacombs were in the countryside because it was illegal to be buried within the city walls. The refusal to be cremated was an assertion of political will as well as a religious mandate — it demonstrated a willingness to be ostracized from the official cult. Living in an era when religion is so often used as a form of political theater, my senses have been dulled by the constant volley of religious imperative. The public performance of religion makes me bristle, in fact, but I did not come to Rome to study religion. The performance of early Christianity (before the tables were turned) was a revolutionary act, and as with all successful revolutions the polarities must be symbolically and literally described. Passing out of the ancient city and into the via di Porta San Sebastiano you gain insight into the symbolism of distance.

1327 inscription on the Porta San Sebastiano

As we continued our walk down the via Porta San Sebastiano, the Porta itself inevitably came into view. The gate and surrounding wall are covered with inscribed graffiti, mostly from the 18th century, and one large inscription from 1327. Between bursts of jockeying Fiats, Annie and I managed to photograph most of the inscriptions. Passing through the gate, we were now on the Appian Way.

Graffiti on the Porta San Sebastiano

The graphic identity of the catacomb way-finding signage is wonderfully refreshing. It would be so easy, when faced with designing such things, to fall into shallow mimesis, to adorn the signs with na├»ve fish, doves, and anchors. Instead the signs are brazenly unsentimental. They remind me of the license plates of 1970s New York — chunky, cramped, navy blue lettering set against a brilliant yellow background. Exchange LATRINE or FACTORY or SUMMER CAMP for CATACOMBE and the sign would make just as much sense.

Dueling motorinos on the via Appia Antica

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the via Appia Antica. It is a beautiful road, but it is being pushed beyond capacity by the traffic that courses through it. When it splits off from the via Ardeatina, the sidewalks disappear and walking along it begins to feel more like a jousting match than a late summer passagiata. Luckily, there is a walking path through the park that separates the two roads, where one need only contend with the grazing sheep.

Sheep grazing above the Catacomb of San Calisto, with the Porta San Sebastiano in the background

When at last we arrived at the Catacombs of San Sebastiano, they were (of course) closed, leaving us two hours to kill before they would re-open. Entering the church, we were immediately confronted by the great Damasian inscription designed by the calligrapher Furio Dionysius Philocalus (third quarter of the fourth century). It is not easy to convey what the experience was like for me. I first saw a reproduction of this inscription when I was 18 years old and I have admired it ever since. If I had ever known where it was located I had forgotten, so I was taken completely by surprise when we opened the door and cast a large swath of daylight across it.

Damasian Inscription in honor of St. Eutychius, designed by Furio Dionysius Philocalus

This inscription gets a lot of attention by lettering historians for a number of reasons: 1) we know the name of the calligrapher who designed it; 2) the lettering style was developed specifically for the texts of Pope Damasus; 3) the lettering is monumental in its conception, but personal in its execution (ie the abundant use of ornament cannot be appreciated from a distance); and 4) the complete inscription is intact. The lettering of Philocalus is unusual in many ways: it is exaggeratedly bi-cameral; the serif formation, while decorative, is too elaborate to be efficiently applied; and the forms are very clearly drawn rather than written. Needless to say, Philocalian lettering did not take off as a tradition. What I find most surprising about Philocalus' lettering is that it anticipates many of the formal concerns of Italian Art Nouveau lettering 1,500 years in advance. In looking closely at the inscription I was happily surprised by an edit made by the carver. Someone had gotten ahead of themselves and spelled TVRBAN as TVBBAN — a very convenient error with a comparatively easy solution.

An epigraphic error with a convenient solution

Before leaving the church we caught a glimpse of a large epigraphic collection behind glass doors. Excitedly, we went to lunch. We lunched on pasta and salad beneath an ivy covered pergola, beside a lazy fountain, overlooking the tomb of Cecilia Metella. After lunch, we took the lackluster English language tour of the catacombs. The rush of cool air that rises to meet you as you descend is eery and wonderful and certainly the most scintillating part of the tour. A few inscriptions remained, but they were a little too conveniently placed for me to believe that they were in situ. When we arose from the land of the dead, we passed by the glass doors of the epigraphic collection. I asked the tour guide if the collection was open for viewing. She said, "There are real things in there, so we don't let people see them," and walked away.