Today we made our way back home. Our flight left Rome around 8:30 a.m., and we finally landed in Chicago at 3:00 p.m. A few of the group split off at the airport while the rest of the group is trekking back to Luther via shuttle bus. We’re all a little jet-lagged and worn-out, but safe and glad to be home. Now before we all fall asleep on the nearest couch, chair or bed, let’s talk about Rome!
Rome was the last stop on our version of the ‘Grand Tour.’ Rome, or ‘The Eternal City, is filled with history and art from the past thousand years. We spent a little under a week exploring ruins, museums, art galleries, and parks, yet we only saw a fraction of the what the city has to offer.
Today’s Rome is built around the ruins of an empire. Even in Byron and Shelley’s time, the bustling modern city had expanded to surround these ruins. Nestled between seven hills and a river, Rome began as a fortress. Resources were easy to bring in via the Tiber River, but the heart of the city was protected by the many hills. While the original empire began many centuries ago, the amenities it provided to its citizens are immediately recognizable to us today. The Forum, located at the bottom of the Palatine Hill, was the marketplace of the day. The Baths of Caracalla were essentially a spa for athletes and the wealthy to relax and gossip. And of course, the Colosseum (from where we get our model for modern sports stadiums) hosted various forms of entertainment. By the time Byron and Shelley got to Rome, these impressive buildings had already crumbled into the ruins. In fact, the Colosseum and the Baths would have been even more overgrown and filled with wildlife than their current state. Both poets found the fragments of the past deeply inspiring, more so than the original structures would have been. They felt that the need to use your imagination while confronting these ruins was more powerful than seeing a building restored in full.
Lord Byron and Percy Shelley were moved by the ruins, and wrote poetry about these monuments and their (often violent) histories based on the remaining fragments and their own imaginations. Inspired by Rome, Byron wrote the fourth Canto of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, and Shelley wrote Prometheus Unbound. Byron and Shelley are not the only poets who have tapped into the history and art over the past millennia for inspiration.The sculptor Michelangelo, for instance, was inspired by the fragments of Roman sculptures uncovered in his lifetime. Since that time, Michelangelo's works have themselves become sources of inspiration, particularly his Sistine Chapel frescoes and his Pieta. Our class had the chance to see both of these in the Vatican.
An interesting figure outside of the art realm who was inspired by the city was Sigmund Freud. Freud saw the Eternal City as an effective illustration of how the mind grows and stores memories: as the old portions of the city (or mind) fade, new structures are built on the foundation provided by their ruins. In this way the old is preserved underneath the new, much like memories. This idea is known as the palimpsest. Literally the palimpsest is a piece of paper or parchment which has multiple layers of writing, but as a broader concept the palimpsest is a perfect image of Rome: Modern cathedrals are built upon ancient temples, art galleries are housed in what were once private villas, and cars zip down ancient Roman roads. It is easy to see why so many artists and thinkers in search of material have made the pilgrimage to Rome.
The Romantics were brought to this city for various reasons. While Byron and Shelley came to explore the ruins of the Roman empire and write poetry, Keats was unfortunately sent to Rome for more dire reasons. Keats was suffering from consumption (tuberculosis). His friends hoped the warm Roman climate would improve his health--and thus he came to Rome in November of 1820. Unfortunately, he died few months later. He was buried in the non-Catholic cemetery. Two years later, Percy Shelley drowned, and would be buried in the same cemetery. As a result, Rome has become a literary pilgrimage site. As pilgrims ourselves, we visited both the house where Keats died, and the cemetery where Keats and Shelley are buried. Much of the house is not original, as papal law at the time required that anything owned by a person who died of consumption was to be burned to stop the spread of contagion. However, being in the house where Keats once lived was still a moving experience. It is now a museum and library dedicated to all of the romantic poets, with specific emphasis on Keats and Shelley. On display are many first editions of their works, as well as a few of their handwritten manuscripts. On the last day of our trip, we visited the graves of these two great poets. They were buried next to their dear friends and admirers: John Severn and Edward Trelawny. Even in death, the Romantics were a community; not only were they colleagues, but friends.
You can expect one more letter from us in the next few days reflecting on our trip.
Until next time,
Jonathan, Emma, and Grant