ROME — a big, big city. Too much to absorb in the few days we were there. Not even in a lifetime could one do it. Here are a few highlights:
The Colosseum — astonishing for its age as well as the familiarity of its purpose and shape. You entered through gates numbered with Roman numerals. It was easy to imagine ancient Romans sitting on the tiered stone steps watching the spectacle below. Peasants received free tickets made of wood. The purpose of this “gift” was to distract them from the misery of their lives.
Gladiator Day at the Coliseum was all-day family event. Women caught up with each other; kids entertained themselves playing board games; picnic baskets were unpacked and enjoyed. The gladiators shed blood. Lots of it. The artifacts in the musuem attached to the Colosseum were fascinating. All that was missing was a Little Caesars pizza kiosk and a knitted scarf striped with maize and blue.
Arch of Titus — this monument evokes much sadness as it depicts the sacking of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Holy Temple. I laid my hand on a part of it taking quiet pride and satisfaction that Ancient Rome is just that and we Jews are still here.
The Jewish Quarter— Jews have lived in Rome for more than 2,000 years. Martin and I toured the city’s Great Syngagoue whose construction began in 1870 after the walls of the ghetto were torn down in the late nineteenth century. In a city of round domes, the synagogue is instantly recognizable for its squared dome, the inside of which is painted in colors of the rainbow, God’s symbol of His post-Flood promise never again to destroy the world.
A Papal bull in 1555, forced Jews to live in the ghetto, segregated from the rest of the city behind gates that were closed each night. After the ghetto walls were torn, the area was demolished. Rebuilding began again in the late 19th century. Demolition of the ghetto did not spare Roman Jews future violence. It was from this area on October 16 in 1943 that Nazis sealed off the ghetto. Two days later, 1035 Jewish prisoners where deported to Auschwitz. Only 16 survived. Jews live in many of Rome’s neighborhoods today but the ghetto, the Quartier ebraico, is still home to the Jewish school, many kosher restaurants and a trilingual bookstore offering books in Hebrew, English and Italian.
We arrived in the square just as school was letting out. It was such a familiar scene, reminicent of the years when I’d pick our kids up at a similar school here in Michigan. But instead of cars and minivans, parents put lifted kids on the backs of their vespas and bicycles and off they went!
Another day we made our way to the Basilica of Saint Peter in Chains to see Michaelangelo’s Moses. It was powerful, mighty, and nothing like the image of the elderly bearded prophet I have carried in my mind all my life. His arms are well muscled; his posture is upright. Michaelangelo portrayed Moses holding the second set of tablets after his descent from Mount Sinai
Alas, this is also the sculpture that perpetuated the myth that Jews have horns. The Hebrew word keren means many things: horn, the specific ram’s hown known as a shofar, a ray, or something projected from a point. In the Torah Moses’ face is described as radiating light — karan or (Exodus 34:29). This radiating light was mistranslated as horns of light giving birth to a calumnious falsehood that still circulates today.
Two more events from our first day in Rome. By the greatest of luck dear friends and former neighbors were in Rome for one night before embarking on a cruise. Their hotel was not even a mile from ours and we met for dinner. It had been too many years since our last time together and what a way to have begun our trip!
Before meeting up with Shelby and Chuck, Martin and I visited the Borghese Gallery, a hefty walk through a beautiful park. On our way there, we stopped to watch a hip hop dance competition between different school teams. Music’s rhythm is universal. The words were lost on us but not the enthsiasm and beat.
The Borghese exhibit featured the work British sculptor Damien Hirst paired with priceless paintings and sculptures from its own collection. Hirst’s solo exhibition was titled “Treasures for the Wreck of the Unbelievable.” Hirst took as his inspiration an imagined shipwreck off the coast of East Africa. Barnacled and encrusted with all manner of ceramic pieces, the sculptures were creepy and captivating. Interspersed among the Borghese’s classic marble sculptures made for a dramatic and disturbing experience.
I returned again and again to Bellini’s Madonna and Child. There was such peace emanating from the painting. The simplicity of color blocks of blue, yellow, red and green lent a solidity to the the holy pair made even stronger against the slender tree and silky blue sky in the distance.
From Rome we went to Cinque Terre. Read on.
Photos courtesy of Debra and Martin Darvick.