Arno River, Firenze, Italia

Arno River, Firenze, Italia

Monday, November 1, 2010

Crypts and catacombs.

October 24th, 2010.

I don’t mind trains.  In a hectic travel itinerary, they can be a welcome change of pace.  Once you validate your ticket and find your seat, the worry and the concern is lifted from your shoulders.  That is, if you can find a seat.

When Jared and I boarded our train for Rome on Sunday morning, we were alarmed to find every seat occupied, not necessarily by a person, but some body part here or there, legs stretched out in comfort, heads laid down to rest.  The train had originated in Pisa, and most compartments, lights off, were silenced in sleep.  We found two folding seats in the open aisle just as the train lurched to life. 

At this point, I was starting to regret the previous late night, clasping my bags to my chest (to protect myself against pick-pocketers) while I dozed, my arms falling forward to rest on my legs.

Jared had a more difficult time, his large frame dwarfing the folding seat.  Every time someone travelled down the aisle to reach the W.C., he was forced to torque his body against the window to let them past.  And this made sleep almost impossible.

Dozing is disastrous; the entire first half of the trip is incredibly hazy, a mix of napping and wakefulness to such a degree that I cannot quite discern between the two. 

After a while, Jared suggested we move to the floor and place our bags between us, a makeshift back rest.  This lasted a slight while, before I began to realize how much our weight was counteracting each other.  If I relaxed too much, the entire backpack would fall into me. 

Thankfully, we secured two seats for the last hour of the train ride.  By this time, the sun had risen completely, the passing landscape illuminated by another day.  Sleep was pushed aside momentarily as we partook in our surroundings and the company in the compartment, a couple from India traveling in Italy for his work (professor).  I love this part about travelling the most.  You meet amazing and interesting people, those you may never see again, but for a moment, as your paths cross, you can share in a conversation or even just a smile. 

Once we arrived in Rome, we sat down, a block from the train station, at a café, enjoying our first of many cappuccinos and croissants (and fresh squeezed orange juice for Jared) together.  And before our first tour, we explored Rome, by metro, an attempt at the bus system, and of course the back-up plan, taxis.

Our first cappuccinos together.

It's the thought that counts ;)

"Make sure I'm centered!"

Still heavy?
Later that afternoon was our “Crypts and Catacombs” tour.  Unfortunately pictures were not allowed in order to respect the sacred ground (but I’ve stolen some from “Dark Rome,” our tour company’s, site).  We made three stops.

San Callisto Catacombs
The first, the San Callisto Catacombs, is an ancient Christian burial ground, excavated by Giovanni Battisti de Rossi, the father of Christian Archaeology.  During and following the years of persecution, these hidden tunnels offered Christians a safehouse and a place of worship.  Unfortunately, when the barbarians invaded Italy, many tombs at this site were destroyed in their search for precious metals and jewels.  However, this was not the practice of Christians, to bury their dead with worldly possessions, stemming from their belief in the promise of an afterlife, a heavenly paradise.  Yet, persistent nonetheless, the barbarians continued to ransack the catacombs, stealing decaying bodies and marble, selling “false” bones as holy relics.  The Pope, in some ways powerless against the attacks, eventually ordered to have all the relics of martyrs and saints removed from the catacombs to prevent future deception.

Within the catacombs are “loculi,” rectangular niches carved into the walls (for individuals), and “arcosoliums,” a larger arched niche (for families), that form the labyrinth of San Callisto.  Since the catacombs are beneath the ground, “gravediggers” or “fossores” had a mere twenty minutes of oxygen with which to carve away the soft, compact “tufa” earth, creating a tomb specific in size, height and length, for the deceased.  Decorations were hastily added, frescos and shallow reliefs that provided visual representations of the Christian faith.  A few symbols included: the good shepherd (ljust as Christ saved the lamb, so he shall save your soul), the “ornate” (a praying figure with raised arms and open hands), the fish (a widespread symbol of Christianity, essential during periods of persecution), and the anchor (a symbol of salvation, that this soul has reached his final resting place in eternity). 

Basilica of San Clemente with 4th century altar.

The second stop, my favorite, was the Basilica of San Clemente.  Here, as we journeyed deeper into the ground (up to 57 feet of ruins beneath the cathedral), we dove deeper into history, traveling through an ancient fourth century church to Roman temples beneath.  This lowest layer of Roman temples (although there are most likely several layers beneath of uncovered history) included a mithraeum, a sanctuary dedicated to the followers of Mithraism.  And above it, the older basilica (a fourth century construction) remained hidden for years, until Irish Dominican Father Mullooly inquired as to the sound of running water that could be heard in the present church basilica (built in 1100).  This water has been running through ancient Roman aqueducts (built during the Republican era) since the founding of Rome.  Father Mullooly spent sleepless nights in search of the source of the sound, and once he convinced others of his insight, excavations began, discovering the past below the present.  Since the altarpiece in the present basilica was from the first fourth century church (when they new church was constructed over the old, they salvaged only the altar to decorate the new place of worship), people had simply forgotten that history was hidden beneath them. 

Running water-- the sleepless nights of Father Mullooly.
Temple of Mithraism, inside a 1st century Roman apartment.

The third and final stop was the Cripta dei Cappucini, a series of chapels decorated with the bones of 4,000 Capuchin monks.  The Capuchin order is a branch from the Franciscan order, intent on reviving the monks dedication to poverty that had been lost in the more modern world.  While I could appreciate the care taken to honor the faith of the previous friars through this display, the way in which the bodies were preserved, evidence of skin still clinging to hands and faces, was unsettling.  I’m not sure I could have stayed much longer to admire the intricate works of art, such as chandeliers, made entirely from bone.  The time spent here was adequate.  For me.  Jared's favorite stop was this one.  

The crypt of skulls.

From the crypt of long bones (femurs).
Interesting story though.  Just down the street from the Cappucini crypts is the home of the first cappuccino.  In the early 1900s, Luigi Bezzara was working on a new combination of espresso and steamed milk with foam.  And this invention was still nameless.  One morning, when passing the Cripta dei Cappucini, he spotted a Capucini monk in full entire, a dark brown robe wrapped around a round middle, a tuft of white hair on the top of his head.  And from that moment, the steamed coffee treat of Italian has been known as a "cappuccini."

Can you see the similarities?
Following the tour, we explored more of Rome, walking down the Spanish steps and throwing fifty cent pieces into the Trevi Fountain.
Spanish Steps.

Trevi Fountain.

50 cents.

For love.
We passed a man selling freshly roasted chestnuts.  He wrapped them in a paper cone and handed them to us, their warmth cutting through the cold air, the scent slightly nutty and sweet.  They were dry but delicious.  Jared wasn’t as much of a fan, so I happily hoarded the rest (and ate them all by the time we had walked back to the bus station).  However, not to be alarmed at my greedy appetite, we did make a quick stop for gelato.  And even though it was cold, let’s be honest, it is never too cold for gelato.  

Jared loves gelato.  He insisted on stopping at nearly every gelateria, scanning the flavors for his favorite: amarenata (black cherry).

At one point I questioned him, confused, “If you always get amarenata, how do you know it’s your favorite?”

He gave me this goofy grin.  “Well…I always taste yours, and still like mine the best.”  It might be cheating, but it works.

Together in Rome.

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