As many of our friends know, Jeff and I just came back from a week-long vacation to Italy without Rafi, who stayed with our relatives the Herers. Our main stops were Rome, the Cinque Terre, and Florence. Pictures are on Jeff’s facebook.
Rome, in a word, is monumental. As capital of the Roman empire, Rome was the capital of the entire civilized world, and when Rome became Catholic, they kept up the tradition.
Everything in Rome is bigger, grander, and more elaborate, from the Dioclesian baths that could hold 3,000 people to St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City.
In ancient times, the Romans shipped Egyptian obelisks in and erected them to demonstrate their superiority over the Egyptians. The Forum is a mishmash, with every ruler feeling the need to add an additional arch or monument to out-do the previous generations.
The Renaissance caught the same grandiose spirit: the Borghese collection was created because the elites wanted to prove that they had surpassed Ancient Rome in artistic talent. All churches are based on Constantine’s basilica with a Pantheon-style dome on top.
The Vatican just keeps going and going, with room after room of treasures. With its Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo wanted to prove that he was the best (and succeeded—he “broke” the Renaissance and ushered in the Baroque era). Next door is St. Peter’s Basilica, which is so over-sized that it requires tricks of perspective to keep it from being (too) overwhelming. Rick Steves, in his audio tour, said, “I’ve lost entire tour groups here.”
Even in the modern era they kept it up. The monument to Victor Emmanuel, the king who unified Italy, is just over the top huge. It has to be, or it would get lost.
Everything in Rome tries to be bigger, better, grander, and more awe-inducing than the last.
I realized this when we took a short side trip to Lucca, which has a grand cathedral as well, San Martin. However, Lucca is a small walled town, and the cathedral lumbers over the walls. Rome’s scale, on the other hand, is so big that the largest monuments and fountains don’t even seem so large.
Even the Jews caught the spirit (after they were allowed out of the ghetto) and built a grand synagogue with a lofty dome, which is square instead of round to distinguish it from the churches. After seeing so many churches and Jesus and Mary and saints and apostles (the statues just kept coming), it was a relief to be in a place of worship without statues, and where I actually know what’s going on.
A word about the Romaniote tradition: Jews have been in Italy since before the exile, making the Romaniote tradition older than either the Ashkenazic or Sephardic traditions. It showed in the siddur: entire paragraphs were different, and Kabbalat Shabbat was much shorter—only a few psalms. But of course the similarities overwhelmed the differences. A shul is a shul anywhere.
Oh, and by the way, has it ever occurred to anyone that Lecha Dodi would be much shorter if you didn’t sing the chorus in between every single verse? That’s the way they did it and it was half the length.
One final thing is bigger in Rome: the prices. We were shocked when we arrived at our next overnight home base, La Spezia, went out to dinner, and found the prices to be half what they were in the big city.