• In Vatican City, St Peter gazes across the square bearing his name. An unimpressed pigeon perches on the key to Heaven.
  • Even in silhouette, the Virgin Mary, Queen of Heaven, strikes awe.
  • God’s own sunbeams illuminate St Peter’s Basilica.
  • Sunlight pierces the gloom of the Pantheon.
  • In the Pantheon, light from the oculus rests on St Agnes of Rome, who is accompanied by Agnus, the lamb of God.

In Rome's eternal light

World September 29, 2018 01:00

By Carleton Cole
Special to The Nation Weekend

7,948 Viewed

Illuminating the highs and the lows of history, the Italian capital will never fail to inspire

ON THE way to the Colosseum in Rome – where a gladiator in triumph might well have taunted the spectators, as Russell Crowe did onscreen, “Are you not entertained? Is this not why you are here?” – is a quiet passageway of red brick.

It has crosses set in stations along the path, whispers of the faith that would forever transform Rome from the capital of the West’s largest empire into a sacred centre of Christendom. 

The Vatican’s passageways, conceived by baroque master Gian Lorenzo Bernini, ensure spiritlifting drama.

Today visitors can only vaguely imagine the intense bloodletting that went on inside the Flavian Amphitheatre, as the Colosseum is also known, and the dynasty of three emperors who built it. 

Tertullian, writing around the turn of the second century, condemned the gore and lamented the gladiators’ fate. “Even in the case of those who are judicially condemned to the amphitheatre, what a monstrous thing it is that, in undergoing their punishment, they, from some less serious delinquency, advance to the criminality of man-slayers!”

The passageway of forgiving crosses threads through the city’s densest concentration of ruins in the Forum before returning to the Rome of today and a wonderful vantage to savour the elegant skyline punctuated by baroque domes. Sacred flames once burned here, maintained by the virginal priestesses of Vesta, goddess of the hearth. Keeping the fires lit was a spiritual must and vital to the city’s security.

Visitors exit Vatican City by way of the doublehelix Bramante Staircase.

Constantine’s Arch again reflects the shift from pagan polytheism to Christianity. Etched on the mammoth gateway erected to honour the emperor’s feats is the word “Divinitas”. The choice would have been acceptable to pagans as well as to the citizens who followed Constantine in embracing the new religion from the Near East.

There are remarkable sights everywhere in Rome and a seemingly endless stream of remarkable moments. A brace of men in tuxedos escort a stylish lady in red arm-in-arm down the Spanish Steps. 

Two of the city’s famously macho taxi drivers have a noisy near miss outside a cafe, prompting the waitress to tease her tourist customers, “Welcome to Rome!”

Against the palatial backdrop of Santa Maria Maggiore Church, policemen wolf down oversized pastries and espresso before hitting the beat, like hungry Romulus and Remus, the city’s mythical founders, being suckled by a she-wolf. 

The gilded detail above the Vatican's Gallery of Maps leads from the Papal Palace to the Sistine Chapel.

Scavenging seagulls splashing in a fountain near a sacred site honouring the Virgin Mother are a reminder of the nearness of the Mediterranean Sea – the “Roman Lake” to the ancients. When the boundaries of the empire began receding, Rome’s new faith radiated out in waves, giving the city fresh significance as a Christian hub.

In Vatican City, St Peter’s Basilica overwhelms the senses with its acres of spectacular art and architecture. A staircase snakes through the curving shell of the world’s largest church, leading to an unforgettable view of sun-drenched St Peter’s Square and beyond, to the edges of the world’s smallest state. Just below the summit, a colossal statue of the namesake apostle, with curly locks and beard in marble, surveys the scene.

At the Pantheon, the sunlight streams dramatically through a circular opening known as the oculus, obliterating the darkness and piercing the heart. The structure’s purity of design transcends religious beliefs –2,000 years after it was built, this is still the world’s largest non-reinforced concrete dome. 

Entering the Colosseum, where gladiators once battled.

As if illuminating history itself, the light shining through the oculus falls in succession on traces of statuary – mysterious wonders awaiting further contemplation. One is a likeness of Agnes of Rome, a Christian martyr of legend credited with a deep sense of sacrifice. In a city where the grandest of dreams seem capable of leaping to life, the sunlight offers to render myth a reality.