Saturday, January 26, 2019.
I’m in Rome. At 7 am, I awake to chirping seagulls, peculiar sirens, and an Italian sunrise. A quick shower, some orange juice, and an egg, and I’m ready to begin my day. Classes haven’t started yet, and I’m in a country I’ve never been before, in a city I’ve only read about. My only objective: to explore. Here, that means simply stepping outside the front door to my apartment on Via Sudario, a two-minute walk from the Palazzo Santacroce where Cornell in Rome calls home.
Today, Jeffrey Blanchard, the Academic Director of the program and my architectural history professor, has planned for us a twelve-hour walking/bus tour of Rome’s historic sector. He hands each of us headphones and an itinerary before leading us out the grand entrance of the palazzo and into the streets of Rome. The man is a walking, living encyclopedia and, may I add, has great hair. Immediately, he nestles his bangs behind his ear and begins softly talking into our ears through our headphones, which, at first, creeps me out.
First stop, the church across the street: a staple of the baroque period that just happens to house the remains of Saint Ignatius of Layola. Word? We say hi to the good man and walk on, past the site of Julius Caesar’s assassination, to the Theater of Marcello. Over the course of a few hours, we visit the ancient theater, hit up a couple palazzos, pay tribute to the Roman Forum, and of course walk a lap around the Colosseum.
My friend Nate describes architecture in Rome as a “tossed salad” of architecture, which I think is one of the most accurate statements I’ve ever heard. Rome is quite literally a melting pot of architectural history. Buildings of all ages exist haphazardly squished in between, below, and above each other. And, in this hodge podge of beauty, there’s absolutely no indication of “respecting one’s elders.” Apartment buildings constructed in the fascist period stick their faces in palazzos ten times their age. The Baths of Diocletian, an ancient roman bath built in 306 AD, is teaming with modern development. There’s a Moleskine right outside the Pantheon. My palazzo, once the home of a noble roman family, now has an ATM and a clothing store on its first floor. Walking through Rome is exciting and disorienting, and I can’t get over it.
For lunch, Jeffrey sits us down in a green meadow along the Ancient Appian Way, a road that has existed since the days of the emperors. I eat prosciutto, obviously, with orzo. Afterwards, we exchange an expansive landscape of grass, pines, and ruins for an austere, intentionally claustrophobic war memorial designed by Nello Aprile, Cino Calcaprina, Aldo Cardelli, Mario Fiorentino, and Giuseppe Perugini.
The war memorial speaks a language softer in pitch yet far heavier in magnitude than that of more well-known memorials in Rome such as Emmanuel II’s monument in the Piazza Venezia. Whereas the latter insists to be looked at and fawned over, the former implores its visitors to experience it. Before walking in, we stop at a monolithic steel door with a plaque remembering the 336 men who died there. Then, we walk. Through the caverns of a mine in which 336 Italian men were slaughtered by Nazi soldiers. Columns of light burst down from openings overhead.
The trail meanders through the mines and concludes in an enormous tomb with 336 marked coffins. Each one has assigned to it a number, a profession, an age, a picture, a person, a human, a soul. And I very quickly become overwhelmed by the magnitude of this mass killing, being crushed under the weight of such a heinous act of evil. The sheer weight of it all is aptly intensified by one main architectural move: four inset columns support a three-foot thick slab of concrete that hovers over the coffins, letting in a continuous line of light through the space between the ground and itself.
I exit the memorial humbled and with an enlightened perspective on Rome, an eternal city with a story as complicated as its master plan, and I can say, without doubt, that I’m beyond excited for the next four months of my life here.