More Than Here, More Than Now

James A. Patrick

 

Returning to the Centro down the narrow Via dei Riari in the early darkness of a Roman January from a miles-long day spent teaching "The City as Text," facing one more evening lecture, a lecture to be given for students themselves weary, many of whom thought they were coming to Rome for fun, one may wonder why the College spends the time, resources, and energy to field the Rome Term and The Oxford Summer Studies Program. Of course on a golden Roman morning, the winter sunshine shining not in but somehow behind the translucent blue; or walking on a June evening to the Trout along the Thames, the poplars and the Oxford spires silhouetted against a pastel Turner sky, one knows why these programs are important. Still it is good to recollect in Texas tranquility the reasons for the Rome and Oxford programs. For Rome and Oxford were not selected accidentally, or in order to give hard-working Fellows a change of pace. They were put in place as part of the curriculum and for very good reasons.

The Rome and Oxford Programs lie conceptually just where the principles, first, that place is a good and effective teacher and, second, that human nature and human history mirror one another, intersect the fact that the sources of our civilization, although partly local, discoverable in Williamsburg, Charleston, Concord and Shiloh, Goliad and San Antonio, strike deep root in the soil of Europe. Civilization is European in the sense described by Newman in "Christianity and Letters," It is a literature and a language, and hence books and ideas. But what do Plato and Shakespeare mean in the world of Oprah, the scene that Evelyn Waugh depicted so tellingly in Brideshead as "the age of Hooper," the age of small commercial hopes in which pusillanimity seems unexceptionable? Nothing. For those small worlds cannot contain the Apology or The Tempest. And to know such works is to possess an imagination infused with a desire for that world in which the human good can be rooted, the world Lewis described as populated by Old Western Man, by men and women who can inhabit a world in which Christ is King, machines merely useful, and art intelligible. So the first effect of the Rome and Oxford programs is to show us and our students the homeland of those books and images and ideas that form the curriculum.

Often now our students come to us as captives of the present, liberated by their earlier educations from the past, and hence from all that can furnish human nature in its fullness. It is in part the work of the College to substitute knowledge and reflection for immediacy, for what Mr. Lewis, to cite him once more, called chronological snobbery. A burden the young, and sometimes the middle aged now bear, is imposed by the false conviction that, with regard to things human, contemporary students stand at the head of an advancing column of knowledge whose conquests have made the past obsolete. Allan Bloom recalled that upon being told that Rousseau and his mistress had entered into what would now be called simply a relationship, the student asked, "How could they have thought of it?" How indeed if, plotting backward from our own enlightened universe of knowledge to the eighteenth century, we pass into a world exponentially more ignorant, one indeed too primitive for lust.

In fact the reverse is true. It is we moderns who, convinced that our time and place are the culmination of human history, condemn ourselves to the banality which lack of self knowledge causes. When T.S. Eliot was reminded that we now know so much more than the old poets, he replied, "Precisely, and they are what we know." Our world is now often too small, bounded by the universe which television defines, by the politics of sentimentality and the literature of post-modernity. What Rome and Oxford do is give students the stuff with which each may build a larger, more complicated, more humane world, a world of ideas and images in which conscience and imagination are filled with the story of the relation of the self to the city and God. To be in Rome is to locate oneself at the center of a world of art and hence of imagination and thought that defines Western experience and provides a context for that literature and history which make possible the full development of the soul.

Rome and Oxford offer each student a world that is more than our present, more than this place. In Rome, especially, every day one asks questions the answers to which locate the questioner in that larger world.

Three examples: In the center of the great Piazza San Pietro, whose encircling arms create the entrance of the basilica, stands an obelisk 83 feet tall which was shipped from Heliopolis in Egypt to Rome in A.D. 37, there to be placed by Caligula or Nero on the spina of the imperial racecourse which stood between the Nervi audience hall and the present basilica. The obelisk stood when St. Peter was crucified in its shadow in the 60s, and perhaps it was part of his last sight of this world. His body was buried in an undistinguished grave in an alley in what would become a fashionable cemetery, and out of that body would grow the great Constantinian Church and its successors, the Church of St. Gregory and the present basilica, begun by Julius II and Bramante in 1506. In 1586 the obelisk was moved by Pope Sixtus V from the location in which it had stood for fifteen centuries to its present location in the piazza, there to become the focus of Bernini’s design for the encircling colonnade. Hoisted into its position by a team of fourteen oxen, the obelisk from Caligula’s circus was lowered onto the backs of four bronze lions, and around the base was inscribed: Behold the Cross of the Lord; fly ye enemies; the Lion of Judah has triumphed".

To know the story of the obelisk St. Peter saw, perhaps as he hung from the cross by means of which the charism of the Roman Church was sealed, of its ancient and present location, and to read its meaning as the sign of Christ’s triumph is to enter the world everything taught in the College presupposes.

When Constantine become a Christian, he sponsored the building of a church on the site of the barracks of the imperial life guards. That church, begun as early as 312 on the estate of the Laterani and endowed from the Italian properties of the Emperor, was St. John Lateran, then as now the cathedral of the diocese of Rome. Rebuilt several times, the building as we have it was redesigned in 1646. In its imposing porch, designed by Alessandro Galilei in the early eighteenth century, are a pair of bronze doors, each perhaps fifteen by five feet, which stood originally in the Curia, the meeting place of the senate in the Forum, where the doors had hung since at least the time of Diocletian. The doors that opened upon the Senators seated around the altar of victory now open upon the solemnly splendid Borromini interior; Twelve, larger than life in grey and white marble, lead the eye to the magnificent Toritti mosaic of Christ, an image incorporating elements perhaps as old as the fifth century.

Just behind our Roman residence, on the shoulder of the Janiculum, stands the Church of San Pietro in Montorio, built in 1481 at the command of Isabella and Ferdinand of Spain by Pontelli, and placed by him at a site symbolically associated with the death of St. Peter. The building is a catalogue of the Renaissance. In its courtyard stands Bramante’s Tempietto, the small circular church, built in 1506, that many would consider the defining monument of the early Renaissance. Inside the church there is the lovely Peruzzi fresco of Our Lady Seat of Wisdom, a chapel by Vasari, the father of the history of art and architecture, and another by the young Bernini. What the Renaissance was is comprehensible in a single space with a power palpably present.

This list of three could be expanded indefinitely. To see the Cavalini mosaic cycle in Santa Maria in Trastevere, completed about 1215, which tells the story of Our Lady’s life and which culminates in the great golden image of Christ crowning The Blessed Virgin in heaven is to know something of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption which words alone can never convey. To stand in the Piazza Navona, which took its shape from the hippodrome of Diocletian, perhaps beside Bernini’s Four Rivers fountain, before the great Church of St. Agnes, Boromini’s masterpiece, is to comprehend the slow unfolding of time through fifteen centuries of human adventure and human loves.

Local loyalties are great goods, but it is among the purposes of the College that every student should learn that he or she is a citizen of a larger world, ultimately of that city which is not made with human hands. But the gateway to that city is an imagination open to the fullness of human history, a world within which the age of Hooper is less weighty than a grain of sand, a world whose ante-chamber is in some sense our college places: Rome and Oxford. And next year Greece.


Taken from:
The Institute Papers
The College of Saint Thomas More
June 1997, Volume XVII, Number I

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