Many Romes

Successful shopping

Successful shopping

Two days ago (my first day in Rome), I walked from the British School at Rome (BSR) to Sant’Anna Gate of Vatican City. Just to see how long it would take me. 45 minutes. Apparently I’m slow — somewhere out there is a long-legged Catholic who can do it in 22. Nonetheless, having timed the journey, I’ve decided that Tram 19, which passes right in front of the BSR, is more my style. If I catch it before 8:30 AM.

Having arrived in Vatican City, I decided to do some browsing of tourist shops. I wanted a Rome-themed key chain for my Roman keys, a nice Swiss Guard toy soldier (I’d seen one once but failed to locate it when in the mood to buy), and maybe (if they exist) a Leo the Great-themed souvenir (to my knowledge, these seem not to).

I don’t know how many tourist shops I went into. They are legion and all in a row beside the walls of Vatican City on Via di Porta Angelica. You can buy one of a vast array of rosaries — who knew something so simple could come so varied? You can buy one of a smaller selection of saint statues or medals — occasional Italian mediaeval or Byzantine-style icons and prints thereof, maybe a print of a Renaissance saint painting. A vast range of Pope Francis souvenirs is present, with (St) John Paul II ( JP2) coming in second. The odd Pope Benedict XVI souvenir still lingers here and there. Small replicas of St Peter’s also abound. And crucifixes. In the mix are a variety of more generic Rome souvenirs, largely focussed on ancient art, history, and architecture, or the Trevi Fountain.

Just around the corner from these can also be found a whole other variety of Catholic store — liturgical outfitters, for all your ecclesiastical needs! Clerical shirts, chasubles, stoles, chalices, patens, censers, tabernacles (!), monstrances, all displayed proudly in the window. Apparently you can also buy purple bishop socks and red cardinal socks. Because why not?

Furthermore, just off St Peter’s Square is the official book shop of the Vatican Press (not sure what they actually call themselves). Lots of Catholic books in there in Italian, Spanish, Polish, English, German, Japanese, and others. The English books, besides translations of official Vatican and papal documents, looked mostly to be aimed at an American audience.

This is the commercial side of one of the many Romes. This is Catholic Rome. Or, rather, one of the Catholic Romes. This is pilgrim/spiritual tourist Rome. One of the shops I visited was even called Al Pellegrino Cattolico. The other aspect of this Rome is found in basilicas and churches, in religious artwork and papal appearances and papal audiences. It is found in the catacombs.

I was originally going to jokingly call this post ‘Two Romes‘, as a nod to Rome and Constantinople, and then surprise people by discussing two Romes in actual Rome. However, I realised in bed last night that there are more than merely two Romes. Besides the tourist/pilgrim side of Catholic Rome, there is also the functioning world of Roman Catholicism in Rome — this Rome is not about tourist/pilgrim shops or visiting the seven pilgrim churches. This Catholic Rome runs and maintains the pilgrim churches. But it also includes the various persons in the Vatican who run the Roman Catholic Church. It also includes the various religious orders who have an established presence in the City. It also includes the various Roman Catholic research/training institutes. Rome actually is the physical heartland of Roman Catholicism, much more than Canterbury ever could be for Anglicanism.

So there are at least two Catholic Romes

They exist and overlap. They also live cheek by jowl with many other Romes, however. There is ancient Rome, visited by tourists, studied by Classicists, beneath the surface of the City. There is historic Rome beyond the classical, visited and studied by the same people. And in the midst of the scholars, tourists, pilgrims, and prelates, there are the modern Romans and the Italian government. All of these Romes exist and overlap and are all about the city, as when one visits the Pantheon (now a church).

This truly is the Eternal City, and its fascination will never cease to hold me.

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2 thoughts on “Many Romes

  1. Gavin

    On a fine day, I commend the walk from the British School to the Vatican taking the river bank from near the Ara Pacis to the Castel Sant’ Angelo. It is not the quickest route, but for that little section along the Tiber, you will be virtually alone in the middle of the city and have time to set your thoughts for the day in order.

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