Perfect Days and Perfect Guides Amid the Grandeur of Rome

Perfect days in Rome. Tonight we had dinner with Robert Shea, the younger brother of Monsignor James Shea. He met us at the Pantheon, that perfect morsel of classical antiquity that served, among other things, as the model for Thomas Jefferson's Rotunda at the University of Virginia. Robert Shea is studying for the priesthood in Rome. In fact, he is now writing his master's thesis—on the bioethics and Pope John Paul II. He is one of those glorious young men (or women) who is completely alive to the life of books and ideas, just settling into an adult persona, talkative, generous, well-traveled, and argumentative (in the best sense). He took us to an utterly unpretentious hidden gem of a restaurant, Gino's, near the Italian Parliament building. There he engaged in a spirited conversation, in Italian, with the restaurant staff, while we looked on, impressed and a little bewildered. Exquisite simple pasta and bread, plus a wonderful antipasto plate, glided into our corner table, together with a carafe of wine, in a funky little narrow curved street we would never have found on our own.

Jefferson never got to Rome, by the way. He ventured as far south as Milan in 1787, but he turned back towards Paris after just a "peep into Elysium," as he put it. As the American ambassador to France, he decided that an excursion all the way to Rome would be beyond his portfolio and a violation of proper diplomatic ethics. Had he seen the Pantheon, completed in 126 AD, in person rather than in the exquisite folio books he collected, he might have fallen into the greatest rhapsody of his life. The Pantheon expresses in brick and marble two perfect solids: it is a sphere inscribed in a cylinder. My daughter stood under the giant open circle at the center of the concrete dome—the oculus—and realized immediately that she was encountering one of the greatest buildings human creativity has ever erected. I can just about imagine visiting Rome and not finding my way to the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican every time, but I would never come here without slipping into awed silence under the dome of the Pantheon. That my beloved child understood its magnificence the minute she stepped inside pleased me exceedingly.

We arrived in Rome Sunday morning early, after a bleary ten hour flight from Atlanta, taxied to our hotel, deposited our bags in storage, and hit the streets. We were as exhilarated as we were tired, and we walked more than nine miles before collapsing into bed.

On Monday my friend Teresa Di Iorio, one of Rome's top tour guides, took us to the Coliseum and then on to the Roman Forum. My daughter is studying classics at university. I studied Latin and Greek long ago. The Forum is any Latin classicist's Mecca. No matter where you turn your attention you will find Roman ruins (from a thousand year span) so fragmentary, intriguing, and engaging that you have to sit down to contemplate how much of one of the three or four major streams of world history flowed along that slender corridor. And then you discover that the place you sat down on happens to be one drum of a broken marble Ionic column, or the brick corner ruin of the Temple of the Vestal Virgins. We stopped at the spot where Julius Caesar was cremated. Because we arrived in Rome just after the Ides of March (March 15, when he was assassinated), we found bouquets of flowers strewn over the crumbling monument. Flowers for a man who has been dead for 2,058 years!

It's one thing to wander about a great city in a state of touristic perplexity, pausing at every historic site to read the sometimes adequate description in the guidebook, and stopping at every third corner to study the map with no real sense of where you are. It is another thing entirely to see a great historical city with a homegrown master, who knows the best time in the best way to see the best things, and to pace the day correctly. For example, as we walked toward the Forum, Teresa pointed to a nondescript church—one couldn't even be sure it was a church—in which Michelangelo's sculpture masterpiece Moses resides. There it is in a corner of the St. Peter in Chains church. And how can Teresa really decide that the Moses is Michelangelo's supreme creation, better, somehow, than his Pieta (which we saw at noon today in St. Peter's) or the David in Florence, which we will take the train to see Thursday? And is there anything in his sculptures quite as marvelous as the vibrantly colored frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel? It's all sensual and aesthetic overload.

This evening Robert Shea was leading us from the Pantheon to a perfect view of the city at sunset from the top of the North American College, when he said, "Do you want to nip in here and see three great Caravaggio paintings?" We were strolling past the French national church, San Luigi dei Francesi, and tucked inside were three monumental paintings by Caravaggio (1571-1610), including the renowned "Calling of St. Matthew." We laughed out loud at the pure joy of it—it would be as if you were walking past the Methodist Church in Jamestown and someone said, "Oh, there are three interesting Picasso paintings up near the altar. Got time to take a look?"

It's impossible to say what the highlight of the trip has been so far. Probably the father-daughter conversations. No matter where we wind up, or what great work of art, architecture, or history we visit, we talk it through together. It was fun to try to identify all the Greek and Roman philosophers in Raphael's fresco painting "The School of Athens." Although we could not talk in the Sistine Chapel, we were both bursting with things to say when we emerged from the Vatican museums an hour later. We have debated the comparative merits of Julius Caesar and the first Roman emperor Octavian (Augustus), as if the politics of the fall of the Roman Republic were as urgent as the Russian annexation of the Crimea, which we hear about on BBC International as we get ready for bed each evening.

The food is simple and on the whole superb. It is really satisfying to explore a great city on foot.

With Robert Shea we had a spirited conversation about the future of the Catholic Church and the global phenomenon of Pope Francis; and we discussed his future, because his long sojourn in Rome and European cultural capitals is now drawing to a close. He will be home for Easter, and by this time next year he will be ministering to a flock somewhere out in the Bakken oil fields of northwestern North Dakota. You cannot watch him in a joyous "dispute" with the Gino's restaurant staff about whether we want simple salads or a large Caesar salad—in passionate Italian, with flailing of arms and eventually handshakes and slappings of backs all around—without wondering how he will make the transition to ordering in a purely utilitarian way from the harried table servers of Pizza Hut or Applebee's.

May the grace of God be with him.


Original photo of the Pantheon by Anthony M. from Rome, Italy (Flickr) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons, edited by staff.