My “Fall of Rome” professor last summer asked me, “Are we Rome?”

Are we, the west in 2017, are we “Rome”?

Yes! Yes and no. It depends on how you view Ancient Rome and how you view the west now. There is no easy answer.

Here, I believe, in the church, and in certain rituals, and beliefs… are where the living tradition of ancient Rome is carried on today… 

After this course I can understand more and more why a pagan would adapt this religion to aid his war success, and to be a unifier of an already somewhat fractured people. 

Tom Holland recently wrote about returning to the church after realizing in writing about the ancient Roman era for years, and about the Medieval, and the Renaissance periods, he saw more and more how Christian thought shaped much of our ‘modern’ form of humanism.

Discovering remnants and fragments and sometimes entire pieces or histories of dug up Greco Roman art and philosophy in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance was an intellectual and spiritual goldmine for learned men, often monks, and eventually for wealthy woman patroness like Isabella d’Este or Lucrezia Borgia or Caterina Sforza or female artists like Sofonisba Anguissola, Lavinia Fontana or Artemisia Gentileschi. 

A great patron and nearly empirical statesman of Firenze, the infamous Cosimo de’Medici, installed the first “open” humanist library in a monastery for Florentine scholars and students, commissioning prints of works from classical antiquity, contemporary Humanist Catholic writers, and artworks with religious and classical themes. It was the first library not exclusively for ascetics or royalty in Europe in 1,000 years. 

When open minded scholars and artists (who were artisans as much as they were artists)… when they married classical thought with the higher moral teachings found in the broadening church interpretations, the commissioned theological (and later classical and allegorical works;) mostly paintings and sculptures, were ordered by the wealthy citizen patrons; first by the church, then the aristocrats, and finally by the growing mercantile class…

The Ancient Romans in the late western empire and in the eastern empire, had to adapt to a new increasingly popular religion to survive, to become yet another new “old” Rome in an eternal city which had always extended itself to the farthest reaches of the earth, with a distinctive calling card, and yet was nevertheless as mutable as the water coursing through the aqueducts… Ancient Rome had to keep something from the past alive, and also they had to grow along with it and the times in order to still thrive in this rapidly flowing world. 

As far as why Rome “fell”, it also appears to me to be for a variety of reasons, and yet Christianity, I don’t think, is one of its downfalls. 

In darker moments I think we are the new Rome, then I remember Rome didn’t necessarily fall the way I thought before this class, that I can still walk among the ruins in the eternal city today, I can see the rituals, and even hear pieces of the language in an old church, and I can even see faces which remind me of a 2000 year old fresco… in the cafes.

For every doom and gloom scenario for Europe or the US, and other parts of the west, there is a twist and turn, an adaptation or rejection, a battle or a war, and I think we are a long way off from either a surrender or a fall.

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you’re my piazza navona

When I think of the Piazza Navona in Rome I think of you now.

Last time I was there I was walking around, and every coffee I had, or wine I sipped, or smile I gave to a passing man, or Bernini fountains I stopped and stood at for the hundredth time pondering with fresh eyes, or place I wandered into… gazing at everything in Saint Agnese, or in the museums near by; I thought about you there in the piazza before me, and after me, off in your own reverie, not thinking of me except when I asked for an image of you once, standing before a marble goddess. You sent it to your part-time Aphrodite on Hérmes’ winged feet, and I treasured it, and buried it, like Crassus’ riches.

You have captured my imagination against my will, and that’s kind of lovely.

This strange, exciting, impossible idea of you sprung from the wells of imagination.

My eyes shine at you; the color of dreams and the sea.

Your eyes burn at me; the color of will and life and earth.

And time itself is a secret nod between us.

The Villa Farnesina in Trastevere, Rome

Trastevere is a lovely residential neighborhood of Rome just across the Tiber from the centrale storico (historic city center)… a taxi or bus ride away or a rather lengthy but enjoyable walk on a sunny spring or autumn day. 

It is a must see for an authentic side of the city with wonderful local restaurants and little shops and cafes and bars and a piazza which boasts one of the oldest and most beautiful (and Byzantine!) churches in the city. 

It is my favorite place in the Eternal city to people watch and to get out of the crowded tourist spots. The Almost Corner Bookshop is there and sells books in English, too, and Trastevere has an ancient portico and a sumptuous small villa museum built in the sixteenth century, the Villa Farnese, owned by a Sienese banker named Agostino Chigi, who commissioned the architect Baldassarre Peruzzi to build him a splendid little palazzo. 

The interior of the Villa Farnese is decorated with frescoes by Raphäel Sanzio, Sebastiano del Piombo, Giovanni da Udine, Giovanni Bazzi (known as il Sodoma), Giulio Romano, Giovanni Francesco Penni, and Baldassarre Peruzzi himself… among their studio artisans and apprentices, as well. 

At the end of the sixteenth century this Villa was purchased by the famous Cardinal Alessandro Farnese from whom it takes its name “Farnesina” to distinguish it from the Palazzo Farnese on the other side of the Tiber (which I will be writing about in detail soon). 

The Villa was also used by the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, and is used for other important Roman events and groups today.

It is a “boutique museum” so its intimate setting is a perfect place to wander around and soak up the atmosphere of what it was like to live in a Renaissance villa, and to imagine the Farneses wandering the halls or Raphäel painting the walls… 


The garden is small and lovely to view, with architectural details and lush trees and other hidden gardens among the grounds you can peek at through gates. It’s one of Roma’s many green spaces and respites from the crowds.

From the official website:

OPENING HOURS

Villa Farnesina is open from Monday to Saturday from 9 am to 2 pm, closed on Sunday and holiday.

Visitors who present their admission ticket to the Vatican Museums (within 7 days from the date of visit to the Vatican Museum) will be entitled to a reduced entrance fee to the Villa Farnesina
GUIDED TOURS

On Saturday at 10 am (english), at 12.30 (italian)

Audio guides are available to visitors (italian, english and french)

SPECIAL OPENINGS

The Villa will be open the second sunday of each month. Info: +39 06 68027268; farnesina@lincei.it

The website is villafarnesina.it

All photographs are by me, Rebecca Butler, shot on analog film in spring 2008, for alovelettertorome.com
I have some interesting stories I picked up about the Villa Farnesina I will post next time. This will be included in my FARNESE family chapter in my book. There is a fascinating Borgia and Medici connection to the Farnese and I’ve spent a lot of time in their amazing Roman and Neapolitan villas (now museums). Alessandro Farnese eventually became pope. 

snapshots of architecture, art, and antiquities of beautiful Berlin

Berlin, Germany is a living, well kept up ode to Grecian architecture, Roman and other ancient world antiquities, classical treasures in sumptuous museums, 19th century design and art, classical music, coffeehouses, bookshops, culture, beauty, ideals, dark history, fresh hopes, and a detached but genial air keeping time with efficiency. The architecture and the antiquities in the museums are seductive and worth the visit! What a charming and fascinating city!!!

Rome in October


I caught a ridiculously photogenic couple in Rome taking a selfie together on the pincian hill at sunset, with cupolas and Saint Peter’s behind them. Oh, to be young and beautiful and in love in Roma, what many in this world wouldn’t give for it. If only, I think to myself…
romeprsimmon

Persimmon trees bearing fruit with a view.

autruin

A little ruin and a little Renaissance (and rococo).

dance

Dance of the tourists on the Villa Borghese’s Pincio overlooking the Piazza del Popolo.

doves

A kissing dove and pigeon. White doves always strike me as a symbol of Ancient Rome, much like olive trees.

woman

I like watching the beauty of Rome unfold before other people.

aut
Down the Pincio, on the way to the Spanish Steps, there are views everywhere of cupolas up close and far away.

water

The endless flow of Roman water over stone and newly fallen leaves.

bust

There’s always a sense of play and humor in the Villa Borghese park, especially in the Pincian hill section.

caes

Walking along the Appian Way one is reminded why Rome will always be the eternal city, winter, spring, summer or autumn.

On Italy, on Love, a Keatsian letter never sent

I write to you from Italy. It’s where I belong, if I belong anywhere in this world. I should be writing this in Italian, that beautiful language… the language of Dante, and poetry, and of the maestros, but I’ve mastered one language only, English. Mastered it with the devotion of a life long lover who never grows bored. Such is my devotion to Italia itself. To the stories of Italy, to the soil, the sun, the gleaming stripped marble of ruins, the art, the hum of life for centuries still playing in stone.

                                                   (film still)

Love and Italy are entwined for me. But love for a place feels less dangerous than love for another soul. What is it about love more than any other sensation or state that makes it worth dying for for nearly everybody? Is it the intoxication? Is it that danger of falling; first in love, —the surrender of giving oneself so completely to another, and then, —the alluring danger of falling into disrepute and disintegration? 
  (‘before sunrise’ trilogy film still)

You’ll never have nowhere to go, I heard in a song once. That’s the other thing about love too, isn’t it? If you are my fail safe, I’ll be your home. We’ll never have nowhere to go, we’ll never be quite alone, never be utterly lost in the world with our pieces of love tethered to an anchor. Love gives you the buoyancy of floating, even at the end of a rope. The deeper the love, the deeper the water, the longer the line, the sweeter the kiss, the saltier the tears. The deeper the knife plunge. Something like that.

 (Shot by me, double exposed b&w film, protestant cemetery, Rome, Italy, 2008)

Loving is swimming that feels like floating, falling that feels like flying, until loving feels like drowning when there’s still a spark in the brain and air in the lungs, — quickly quickly at first, then slower, slower so there’s a flicker of hope, until the last tick tick tock of blue veins and dark arterial blood, and with the sounds of a few trite memories, voices of ghosts before you’ve forgotten, —then the spark is faltering again, then flickering out, the air is now escaping, —then, at once — nothing.

 (shot by me, portra film, capri protestant cemetery, isle of Capri, Italy, 2013)

Keats said, “Love is my religion; I could die for it.” Not for religion, not for country, not for god or even one’s soul, but for love itself, that fickle slow dying and quickening and petering out and rushing back and dissolving of self, that is worth dying for, each and every time. 

We hope for one great love in life, but perhaps there is a beauty in a few great loves, slipped into and out of like different characters? Multiple loves for multiple lives. 

 (analog photograph by the amazing Francesca Woodman)

That’s what we have, you and I, isn’t it? We fall in and out of love, in and out of each other? We hunt and repel, we submerge together, and reemerge on opposite sides, —we crash back into, then back away, sometimes we look away when speaking… 

Tell me when does love stagnate? When the newness of sex becomes too familiar or the nuances of our narratives loses their mystery? When we lose ourselves a little too much to capture the other, and no longer “get each other?” When the brains soften followed by the body?   

 (greco roman style neoclassical painting)

I fear I’ll never feel that with Italy, my love will never die for its myths and beauty. I’ll always return to its warmth, its reminder of death, and of the temporary. My love for you also feels endless, for it is already a ruin we revisit, happily, to hold onto the dust a little longer, to declare we were once here, to hope when we’re carrion our love will find itself in the hum pressed into stone too.

standing at the ruins on a quiet roman night

Rome is pieced together by fragments old and new; a broken clay pile of people who have lived and died, and are forgotten, rivaling the Monte Testaccio in size and obscurity.

Rome is the heaviness of time. It is the marks left on humanity. It is a walkable history book, forever unfolding its pages.

Rome is monuments of the big whigs leaving you breathless with their grand scale and an overwhelming rush of beauty.

‘Everyone is dead here’, the city whispers, in a voice softened against the bone-white marble of ruins.

The palatine lies silent under the stars. This is your one moment to catch your breath and savor Rome.

Try to stop time by breathing it in slowly. Hold it in, and take a sensory snapshot. Stand there, holding your breath, recording, feeling as immovable as a statue; a Henry James’ American willing a sacrifice to the pagan gods.

‘Just let me remember this. Let this enter me. The endlessness of it. The cobwebs. The broken stone. The bones. The dust. The pulse remaining somehow. Let me carry Rome where ever I go. Let it become a part of me. No, let me become a part of Rome. Another story never writ, another name unknown.’