Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Rome, 6: Three tombs

Cestius's pyramid seen from the Non-Catholic Cemetery, Rome
Via Damaso Cerquetti, April 18, 2017—
WELL, AS I WAS SAYING, after 392 CE, when Theodosius passed legislation prohibiting all pagan worship in the Roman Empire, Christianity began to have its way. In 529 Justinian I closed the Neoplatonic Academy; effectively ending classical paganism and closing the era of Late Antiquity. Most scholars left Rome for the more tolerant Persia.

Lay Christians took to destroying and plundering the temples, and theologians and ecclesiastics soon followed. The bishop of Milan, for example, later St. Ambrose, talked his student Gratian, who became emperor in 375, into confiscating the property of the pagan temples and removing the statue of the Goddess of Victory from the Senate. Churches began to be elevated on the rubble of plundered temples.

And houses, among them Cecilia's. And not all this plundering and architectural one-upmanship was mistaken: though much was lost, some things were preserve — the beautiful old circular Vestal temple, for example, and the Pantheon, both of which had Christian churches installed within. (As had the great Mezquita in Córdoba: but that's another story.)

We skip to the time of Charlemagne, who is recorded as having massacred 4500 rebel Saxon prisoners who had refused to convert to Christianity. Olaf I, who reigned from 995 to 1000, tried to convert Norway during the Viking age, torturing and executing those who refused to convert, but his conversion didn’t hold. The Balts, Slavs, and Finns were converted during the 12th and 13sth centuries,

in a series of uncoordinated military campaigns by various German and Scandinavian kingdoms, and later by the Teutonic Knights and other orders of warrior-monks. It involved the destruction of pagan polities, their subjection to their Christian conquerors, and frequently the wholesale resettlement of conquered areas and replacement of the original populations with German settlers, as in Old Prussia. Elsewhere, the local populations were subjected to an imported German overclass. Although revolts were frequent and pagan resistance often locally successful, the general technological superiority of the Crusaders, and their support by the Church and rulers throughout Christendom, eventually resulted in their victory in most cases - although Lithuania resisted successfully and only converted voluntarily in the 14th century.
The forced conversion of the Jews, and the defeat of Muslims, in late medieval Spain, is well known; and of course the conversion of all the inhabitants of the Americas. All this was done by the Catholic cult, but after Reformation various Protestant cults took their turn at resisting the social status quo and converting neighbors where they could.

My favorite example of all this is the Pilgrim Fathers of the 17th century, English “Dissenters” who left England where their own religious intolerance got them into trouble and settled in the more tolerant Holland, then left there because they wanted to continue to be separatists, did not want to become Dutch, so found backers who would fund a colony in the New World for them, where they could more readily continue to practice their religious intolerance. And so it continues, down to our own day, when the only use for religion seems to be to delineate nations and reduce populations.

I thought about all these things the other day while walking in the Protestant Cemetery, also called the English Cemetery, officially the Non-Catholic Cemetery, out by Cestius’s Pyramid. Gaius Cestius was a magistrate during the early days of the Roman Empire, before the birth of Christ, rich enough to have this pyramid built to serve as his tomb. It was not the only pyramid in Rome: the Egyptian motif was all the rage in the years following the defeat of Cleopatra. But it is the only one to survive:

a larger one—the "pyramid of Romulus" — of similar form but unknown origins stood between the Vatican and the Mausoleum of Hadrian but was dismantled in the 16th century by Pope Alexander VI and the marble was used for the steps of St. Peter's Basilica.
There are few more captivating places in Rome than the relatively tombstone-free northern part of the Protestant Cemetery, where the lawns spread underneath stone pines and you look out onto the Pyramid and the Ostiense gate in the old Roman wall.

Here is John Keats’s grave, but his name is not on his stone, which instead reads

This grave
contains all that was Mortal,
of a

on his Death Bed,
in the Bitterness of his Heart,
at the Malicious Power of his Enemies,
these Words to be engraven on his Tomb Stone

Here lies One
Whose Name was writ in Water.

Feb 24th 1821.
Poor Keats: he had had a number of recent bad reviews, and died in sadness. For decades his grave was the object of pilgrimages by readers besotted by romantic lyric poetry, as ballet fans still hang shoes on the grave of Diaghilev, in Venice, but when we were there the other day it seemed rather neglected; Gramsci's grave is perhaps more to the present taste.

Cestius's pyramid-tomb survived not because Christianity claimed it but for more practical reasons: it was at the corner of the city wall, and its triangular shape made a fine defensive fortification. It has recently been cleaned and restored, thanks to funding from a Japanese businessman, and it looks great: I can't help thinking Caius Cestius would be pleased.

St. Cecilia: sculpture by Stefano Maderno, 1599
Photographed at the church of St. Cecilia, Trastevere,
by Richard Stracke
As for Cecilia, her body was laid in a tomb in the catacombs of St. Callistus, also outside the Roman walls — for centuries it was illegal for anyone to be buried within. At some time during the ninth century Pope Paschal I had the remains removed and reburied in her church, then undergoing reconstruction. Seven hundred years later, in 1599, Cardinal Paolo Emilio Sfondrati had the remains exhumed for some reason, taking care to have a group of witnesses with him.

Among them was the young sculptor Stefano Maderno, who swore, with all the others, that the body was absolutely uncorrupted. He made drawings and no doubt took measurements, and — commissioned by the Cardinal — made the very beautiful, very moving sculpture, life-size, said to depict her body as it was found.

A stay in Rome always brings thoughts of fleeting permanence to mind, and of the only human attempts to memorialize. Sometimes, as in these three cases, it works, perhaps in spite of the original motivation. Mostly, I think, it does not. If not, as Gertrude Stein might have said, too bad.

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