Saturday, October 10, 2009

Walk to the Catacombs of S. Domitilla, 5 October

As I walk through Rome, I oscillate between recognition and dejà vu, desire and inevitability. Turning a corner, looking at a facade, entering a church — every action is expectant, alive with the possibility of reunion. Letters are everywhere: cut into walls and bridges, crammed into cortili, scattered on the ground like seedlings. Rome is an alphabetic tessellation, a lettered mosaic of time. On every walk I take, I happen upon an inscription that I've previously only known from faded books.

Last weekend an historian here mentioned that I should visit a 1st century BCE inscription on "one of the bridges on the Isola Tibernia." Having no specific plan for my walk to Domitilla, I decided to use this as my starting point. The Isola is connected to the western bank of the Tiber by Ponte Cestio and to the east by Ponte Fabricio. When I arrived on the eastern bank, I hung my head over the side and saw the magnificent Fabricius inscriptions that I have seen reproduced so many times but never seen in person. It was thrilling. The E alone is worth the trip: so thoroughly non-Imperial, it is broad and pre-supposing with a decadent lack of propriety. My camera is not equal to the task that these inscriptions present (Annie and I will go back for better images), but the picture below accurately recreates my first sighting of the inscription.

The eastern-most inscription on the northwest face of the Ponte Fabricio

From the Ponte Fabricio I headed down to the via del Teatro di Marcello and the elaborately carved, 12th century cornice of the Casa dei Crescenzi. The arched inscription above the door is wonderfully sober for its period and is a reminder that Romanesque lettering styles defy easy classification: they were local phenomena united by broad generalities. Looking at this inscription would give you no insight into the wild melange of transalpine Romanesque lettering. Instead, it is more reminiscent of early Humanist lettering in and around Florence.

Part of the inscription above the door of the Casa dei Crescenzi

Hoping to make it to Domitilla before the noon break, I proceeded to the Circus Maximus. Once there, I opted to walk through the length of its open track. The sun was so hot, the sky clear. Ahead of me a couple of people wandered around with their dogs, but the general bareness of the place heightened my previous impression of the Circus as a kind of anti-spectacle, a historical no-mans land that makes people uneasy and uncertain. What does one do there? In a different context, the Circus would be a crowded urban parkland but it's status as "RELIC" prevents its utilization. For a designer, the Circus offers many lessons, most notably the lesson of breadth. Emperors and fascists understand this, the importance of breadth in the public architectural gesture. It makes people feel important, makes them feel that their leaders hold them in esteem. But when the spectacle is no longer there, is buried beneath eighty feet of earth, the focus of the space is inverted. You are what is to be seen and the enormity of the space only emphasizes your smallness. It would be an interesting project to try to transform the public perception of this place.

From the Circus, I continued southeast along the broad via delle Terme di Caracalla, finding shade in an alley of umbrella pines and olive trees. The via is made up of four roadways separated by three green spaces, of which the central one is a park in itself with bicycle paths and exercise equipment. In contrast to the Circus this roadway feels disingenuous — it is not grand, it is simply very big.

Within sight of the Baths of Caracalla, I turned once more into the via di Porta San Sebaastiano and headed to the Appia Antica. I arrived at the coffee bar across from Quo Vadis at quarter to twelve meaning that I would have to wait at least two hours before getting in to Domitilla. After a leisurely lunch of Tonorelli Cacia e Pepe, I headed south through the park over the Catacomb of San Calisto.

A gaggle of nuns leaving the Catacomb of San Calisto

Unlike those of San Sebastiano, the grounds of the Catacomb of S. Domitilla are consciously designed as an attraction. There are shaded picnic tables, a small kitchen in which pilgrims can microwave their lunch, and a high pink perimeter wall with DOMITILLA stenciled on it. As you approach the entrance there are faux inscriptions engraved with the symbols of early Christianity — the orrant, fish, anchor, etc — and a gently gurgling fountain. After a two and a half hour walk, the shaded tables of the Domitilla waiting area are very welcoming.

Soon, a pleasant man named Cyril approached and told me that I was the only English and that I would have a personal tour. We descended. While San Sebastiano is crowned by a large Basilica, the Basilica of Nereus and Achilleus at Domitilla is still underground. The roof is new, but neither it nor the rest of the Basilica received the Baroque make over typical of other basilicas. Instead, it is brick and mortar, and the only decorations are the pieces of inscriptions that, according to Cyril, the Vatican has not taken. As we walked through the church, Cyril made a point of saying that they didn't actually know which of the inscriptions were pagan and which were Christian. It didn't matter, though, because after Constantine all of the pagans became Christians anyway.

We headed down into the catacomb. I asked if the few inscriptions in the tunnels were in their original position and he said that none of them were; they were all found on the floor and there is no way of knowing where they were originally placed. (My project was specifically to document in situ inscriptions. There are none.) When I told him that I was interested in studying the inscriptions he lamented that the Vatican had taken all of the good ones and that, although he worked at Domitilla, his favorite catacomb was Priscilla. They have lots of good pictures there, he said. We spent a lovely half hour together. Cyril seemed eager to talk and he appeared especially keen on facts. Among other things, he told me that the catacombs had a constant temperature of 65 - 70 degrees fahrenheit and a constant relative humidity of 70%. He pointed out that the ceiling was coated with glistening beads of water. We ran our hands across a couple of inscriptions and felt the moisture on them.

At one point, while Cyril was showing me a ceiling fresco of Jonah being spit out by the whale (it looked like a squiggle of green paint) we had to move aside to let a group through. He explained that groups can arrange to celebrate mass in a catacomb cryptoporticus. It gave me chills just thinking about it. Is the concept of martyrdom truly a selling point in vacation travel? Have these people seen a newspaper in the last ten years? I tried to imagine the travel brochure. "While in Rome, we'll take you forty feet underground to celebrate mass in a desecrated graveyard. Box lunch included."

As we came to the end of the tour I asked Cyril if it was possible to get a private tour of the rest of the tunnels. He looked at me a little puzzled and said, "Why would you want to do that? There's nothing there. They all look like this."

The pyramid and the Porta San Paolo, through which I re-entered the city