12 – Another Paradise and a Stairway to Heaven

Continued from Rome with a View

 

“Few great works of art last longer to the curiosity, to the perpetually transcended attention. You think you have taken the whole thing in, but it expands, it rises sublime again, and leaves your measure itself poor.”
The Italian Hours, Henry James

*******

“So,” Sara began, shifting her tote over her shoulder as they stepped from the secluded shelter of Parco Savello and into the now hustle and bustle of a Roman morning. “Where are we headed? You weren’t exactly specific back there.”

“You mean after we drop off our bags?”

At this obvious attempt at coyness, she laughed, “Yes, after that.”

But when he only smiled that maddeningly knowing grin of his, Sara gave him a low muttered caution of “Gil –”

“Come on,” he urged and without another word, let alone an explanation, tugged her towards a set of rather ancient looking gates. Despite being obviously securely fastened, these appeared to possess some sort of strange sense of fascination as a short queue had already begun to form in front of them.

Once at the head of the line, Grissom indicated for her to go first. And as Sara had observed those before her do, she bent to peer into the large brass keyhole.

Her eyes went as wide as her smile at the peek-a-boo view of the ornate Basilica di San Pietro perfectly centered inside.

Leaning in for his own look, Grissom said as nonchalant as ever, “Does that answer your question?”

 

*******

Navigating the vast cobblestone sea that made up the Piazza di San Pietro, Grissom said, “This was once a paradise too, you know.”

Momentarily puzzled by this Sara asked, “As in the kingdom of heaven on earth? As I seriously doubt early Christians would have thought so.”

At the go on look he was giving her, she began to explain how the Emperor Nero, when facing rumors and accusations of being responsible for the First Century burning of Rome, which had over the course of six days and seven nights razed more than seventy percent of the city, decided to deflect the animosity away from himself and onto the favorite scapegoat of the time: a new rather small and obscure Jewish sect commonly known as Christians.

Once rounded up, these adherents were for the amusement of the citizens of Rome made the subjects and objects of violent and horrific sport. In the great arena of the Circus of Nero, upon the grounds of which much of St Peter’s currently stands, the Christians became literal lambs to the slaughter, their bodies having been covered with the hides of sheep and other beasts before they were set upon by wild animals. Some were crucified. Others sprinkled with pitch and set alight to serve as living torches to illuminate the games.

“And before that as the swampland wasn’t much use for anything else, it was the site of a Roman necropolis. So,” Sara confessed, “I guess I’m not getting how it was ever paradise.”

The unexpected thoroughness of her reply only surprised Grissom for an instant, soon recalling as he did, his wife once telling him she’d used to love the stories of the saints.

“You’re about three hundred years too early,” he offered. “The Old St. Peter’s, the one Constantine I built, had an enclosed entrance or atrium surrounded on all sides by colonnades. It was known in the Middle Ages as a parvis or…”

“A paradise,” she finished knowingly. “So more architectural than spiritual then.”

“In this case, yes.”

 

*******

 

Thankfully at this hour, it was too early for the typical football field length queues just to get into la Bascilica Papale di San Pietro in Vaticano. Grissom and Sara were both glad too that on the way over they’d dropped off their bags at their hotel so they didn’t have to worry about checking them. Instead, they simply passed through the metal detectors and into the vast church.

They didn’t get far.

Nearly as soon as they entered, they came upon the Chapel of the Pietà, where Michelangelo’s life-sized sculpture of the Virgin Mary holding the dead Christ in her lap has safely resided behind a wall of glass ever since a delusional geologist took a rock hammer to the masterpiece in 1972.

It hadn’t taken them long, during those afternoons just after they’d first arrived in Paris when Sara had insisted on dragging Grissom (who hadn’t been that unwilling of a participant) through the miles of art at the Louvre, le Musée d’Orsay or le Musée de le Orangerie des Tuileries, to discover that looking at a photograph of any piece of fine art whether it be painting or sculpture or textile was nothing like experiencing the real thing in the flesh. One could appreciate the photographic representation on a sort of intellectual level, but only in the actual presence of the art could you truly experience it.

Except it wasn’t the dead Christ figure that riveted Sara to the spot. She’d seen death too often and too intimately to be transfixed by it any longer. No, it was the serene mien of the Virgin that gave her such pause.

In place of the supreme grief so many artists had chosen to depict, Michelangelo’s Mary possessed a sweetness and peace that certainly passed Sara’s understanding.

For she’d never seen that sort of tranquility and acceptance on the face of the mother of a murder victim. Not once.

But maybe that was faith for you.

Something Sara couldn’t quite reconcile herself to. It was just too hard to make peace with the world she knew, the one she lived in, with any God she’d ever heard of. There was just too much hurt and suffering; too much evil.

And faith felt too much like a luxury she could never afford.

That her husband didn’t feel the same didn’t bother her in the slightest.  She might not exactly understand the hows and whys of it, ever feel that way herself, but none of that in the least bit detracted from her admiring Grissom’s ability to possess both faith and reason even after all he’d seen.

For him faith was simple, almost inexplicably so.

Once when she’d asked him about it, he’d explained his thoughts and feelings as he did with most things, by quotation, this time from Dante’s La Divina Commedia:

Faith is the substance of the things we hope for,
and evidence of those that are not seen.

Young Michelangelo’s Mary certainly seemed to possess a faith like that. A faith that held fast to the belief that the great sufferings of life — that all its pain — had a promised end.  That death was not something to grieve.

But for Sara, if it had been someone she loved —

She hadn’t been able to just accept Warrick as gone.

Neither had Grissom.

Even with all of his faith, there had been no majestic acceptance, no ethereal peace when Warrick Brown had died in his arms.

Not later either when in the sanctuary of his office, he’d grasped her hands so hard and told her, “I was holding him. God, I could feel his life. I guess I felt as if I could hold him tight enough, he’d be okay.”

Nor when they’d come home from the funeral, Grissom wearing that lost, empty, vacant look that remained even months later.

And as hard as it had been losing Warrick, the idea of losing Grissom —

Sara didn’t want to think about it. Even begin to think about it. Not now. Not after everything that had happened. Not after they’d finally managed to find their way back to each other.

She was nowhere nearer now to being ready to say goodbye to him than she had been that night after Brass had woken in the hospital. She wasn’t sure she’d ever be.

But just the thought, as hastily discarded as it was, proved disquieting enough.

Oblivious to the steady stream of viewers ebbing and flowing around them, Sara leaned against the railing, closing her eyes in hopes of regaining some measure of composure.

She revived a little at the gentle pressure of his hand at the small of her back and turned.

That deadened look Grissom had worn for so long after Warrick’s murder seemed such a far distant memory, his gaze as warm and alive and presently a little concerned as it was.

Reading his unspoken You okay? Sara nodded, not quite able to smile.

And although Grissom knew better than to believe her, he didn’t press.

 

*******

Her melancholy didn’t last long, however, soon subsumed as it was by amazement.

One didn’t have to believe in God, Christian or otherwise, to feel the magnitude of St. Peter’s, to be awestruck and overcome with wonder as one strolled up the nave, immense enough as it was that it could house more than 60,000 worshipers at one time.

It was pure Roman grandiosità. Almost too much to take in all at once.

With every inch of every corner, cornice, and crevice adorned in gilt, bronze, mosaic, marble or monumental stones cut and polished to shine like jewels in all their rainbow hues, the basilica was a true marriage of art and devotion; the sacred and the sublime.

And so staggeringly so that one felt as small as an ant under the great eye of heaven. And yet none the less for it.

No, it was not difficult to imagine here the magnitude and majesty of a higher power beyond oneself.

But while Sara gaped and stared and marveled, the camera at her side wholly forgotten, Grissom seemed to drink it all in with his usual ease and grace. With the comfort he seemed to perpetually carry with him these days. Of the sort which frequently baffled, but did not irritate his wife, ignorant as she was to the fact that she was the source and cause of it, the one who made the difference in him.

A murmur of worshipful Italian drifted from one of the many chapels. Easy as it was to forget in an age where churches were more houses of art than houses of God, that the pilgrims and the penitents frequently outnumbered the tourists, the sound came almost as a surprise. St. Peter’s was however after all still a working church where every day santa messa was intoned, confessions received, the sacraments of baptism, confirmation and marriage celebrated.

Throughout the church, the singular scent of sanctity pervaded, that unmistakably peculiar blend of light and time and dust, coupled with the almost sickly sweet smell of an incense the roots of which ingredients went all the way back to the frankincense the Magi presented to the Christ child.

In spite of the steadily building crowds, the basilica was quiet. What conversations there were conducted in hushed, close whispers; the vastness of the soaring ceilings swallowed up the sounds of scores of footfalls on the marble.

Grissom and Sara spoke little until they reached the center crossing at the heart of the basilica. There bathed in the almost heavenly light streaming from the dome overhead, Bernini’s great bronze baldacchino rose to tower over the altare papale and the grave of St. Peter far below.

Gesturing to the immense ornate pillars bearing up the ceremonial canopy, Grissom leaned in to say, “Tell me what you see.”

And with a smile, he watched her eyes follow the way each column spiraled from an acanthus base into the intricately intertwining sprigs of bay and olive leaves.

Noticing the cherubic putti weren’t the only ones abuzz in the foliage, Sara had a hard time containing her amusement. “I should have known,” she sighed.

She should have known better than to regard Grissom’s promise to take her bug hunting in Rome literally.

Apis mellifera,” she murmured, for the grand canopy virtually swarmed with bees.

“We could look for actual bugs if you’d like,” Grissom rejoined, happy to see her brighten and smile again.

“These are just fine,” Sara maintained. “Symbolic, I assume.”

Grissom nodded. “Doubly so. They’re Barbarini bees.”

“Barbarini bees?”

“See the cluster of three bees at the top of the columns and along the canopy beside the papal shields? It’s the heraldic crest of the family of Pope Urban VIII. Long story,” he hastily summed up, and indicating that their surroundings weren’t exactly the time or place said, “Tell you later.”

She chuckled, “Why do I get the feeling this isn’t the last of the bees then?”

He only smiled.

To which Sara shrugged. “At least this way I guess I don’t have to worry about being stung.”

 

*******

Exiting into the portico of the church, Sara said, “You planned all of this.”

It wasn’t a question. Nor was her equally knowing, “So this is what you were up half the night doing with my phone.”

For at some point earlier that morning, she’d woken to find herself curled up along the seats of their compartment, her head in Grissom’s lap; his jacket draped over her like a blanket and her husband sitting up wide awake, glasses perched on the tip of his nose, and apparently by the way his face was bathed in the unearthly blue illumination, having succumbed to the lure of her iPhone.

When he would neither confirm nor deny this, she laughed, “Well, at least I know what to get you for your birthday.”

Then recalling their old school versus new school debate on the train, Sara added slightly smug, “Told you it comes in handy.”

 

*******

“One last thing,” Grissom said, steering Sara down the length of the atrium rather than down into the Piazza.

“Think Zeppelin,” he proffered when she shot him one of those disbelieving And now what? looks.

Which didn’t leave her any less perplexed. “As in Hindenburg?”

“As in Led.”

Still baffled as to what on earth he could be referring to, Sara merely waited for what she knew would be his eventual elucidation.

“‘Stairway to Heaven,’” he supplied.

What the rock anthem of the 1970’s had to do with anything in the Vatican, Sara had no clue until she found herself staring at a warning sign posted just outside what appeared to be a ticket office of all things.

In italiano, English, français, Deutsch and español it stated:

 

To reach the cupola one must climb 320 steps after taking the elevator;

the elderly, those with ailments or heart problems should be aware.

 

That it all now made sense, like Grissom’s oft strange allusions were ultimately wont to do, didn’t keep her from saying, “It might have been just a little before my time, but I’m pretty sure this wasn’t what the band had in mind, Gil.”

His answering glare said Humor me. Which she did, as usual.

Pointing to the much shorter line for the stairs, he asked, “You game?”

And recognizing the challenge, Sara returned it. “I am if you are,” she rejoined. Then gesturing for him to precede her teased, “Age before beauty.”

He shook his head insisting, “Ladies first.”

“Chivalry not dead in Rome?”

“Not dead with me,” he countered, which she had to admit was true.

They paid their six euros a piece and joined the queue. Ascending the first two hundred or so stairs up to the tamburo or drum at the base of Michelangelo’s dome proved easy enough (of course those hadn’t been the stairs the caution referred to) and were well worth the climb, affording as it did, a rousing dove’s eye view of the interior of the great basilica and a closer look at the mosaics that adorned the interior of the vault.

It certainly altered and expanded one’s sense of proportion. Appearing huge even at ground level, the circumnavigating letters about the base proclaiming:

 

Tu es Petrus et super hanc petram aedificabo ecclesiam mean et tibi dabo claves regni caelorum —

 

took on almost epic proportions when seen up close at their full two meter stature. And the tourists below really did look like scampering ants from this height.

Having each been lulled into a false sense of security after their initial climb and with Grissom still goaded on by the unspoken and yet no less implied old man at the end of his wife’s I am if you are, Sara certainly not about to complain if her husband wasn’t and them both immune to the siren call of restrooms, water fountains, coffee bars or souvenir shops, they chose to continue up to the laterna at the apex of the dome rather than descend to the roof.

Rather rapidly they discovered that the sign hadn’t been kidding.

If anything, it forgot to mention the tight narrow squeezes, the seemingly interminable winding along oddly spaced and shaped stairs, how in places there was only rope to hold onto for balance and with the continuous reverb of the footsteps behind, that there was no space to pause to catch one’s breath either. It was certainly a climb in any case.

And with the only way to go as up, not for the faint of heart or indecisive. Good thing neither of them were prone to fits of claustrophobia. But both were privately ruing their bravado.

“Steep and narrow is the road to heaven?” Sara quipped somewhere around step 275.

Causing Grissom to quote, “‘Strait is the gate and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life,’” in reply.

In this case, straight would have been an improvement.

“But purely practical, I’m sure,” he continued.

“Maybe you should have gone first,” Sara suggested a little breathless. “I’m not exactly Beatrice you know.”

Grissom’s lips twitched slightly at the mention of the woman who led Dante from out of purgatorio and into paradiso. Readily recalling how the real Dante Alighieri only ever loved the real Beatrice di Folco Portinari in that secret, heightened, distant and chaste way so common to the ideals of courtly love, he said, “I’d rather have you.”

He had already loved Sara from afar for far too long. From even before he recognized that love was what it was, what all the strange thoughts and feelings and wantings meant. He certainly wasn’t all that keen on the idea of loving her that way now.

If there hadn’t been the persistent rumble of steps at their backs, the honesty in his assertion would have stopped Sara in her tracks.

As it was, there wasn’t much breath for climbing, let alone words, by the time they reached the top.

Just as the Eiffel Tower was the highest point in the Parisian skyline, the cupola at the top of St. Peter’s dome was to the Roman sky. The sweeping views from caput mundi, the head of the world, was accordingly breathtaking. And the breeze which had begun to blow the clouds in from the North refreshing after their confinement.

Joining their fellow climbers at the railing, Grissom turned to Sara and said, “This is why I wanted to bring you here.”

“For the view?” she queried in return.

He shrugged, “It’s always good to take in different points of view.”

“True.”

It certainly was that.

Then Grissom asked, “Do you know why Michelangelo designed the dome this high?”

Sara had to admit she didn’t.

“The official answer is Ad majorem Dei et Ecclesiae glorium, ‘To the greater glory of God and the Church.’ Which was why he consented to work on the project as old as he was at the time.

“But even though Michelangelo never lived to see it finished, he wanted the dome to allow man to be that much nearer to God, believing as he did that his work could allow him to touch God. And that it was man’s right to try.”

One could certainly envision it from this height. In how the distance muffled the cacophony of the world below into the rumble of a whisper and how just out of reach, phalanxes of sparrows and starlings dove and swept across the sky in almost regimental unison.

From here the Roman belief that Non c’é una città più bella di Roma, there is no city more beautiful than Rome, didn’t sound the least like jingoistic pride, but truth.

“So,” Grissom asked, once more leaning nearer to her, “do you recognize anything?”

Sara scoffed, “Isn’t it still a little early in the day for a quiz, il maestro?”

He simply waited. So she rattled off the ones she knew.

When this didn’t seem to impress Grissom, Sara challenged, “What, you can do better?”

He gave her one of those slight smiles of his, of the sort she knew presaged mischief.

“Close your eyes,” he said and when she balked at this request, insisted, “Just do it.”

Knowing better than to fight him on this, she did.

And in his whispered descriptions not only could she see the places as they stood today, but the way they’d been. See past the terrace just beneath them lined as it was with the 140 statues of Jesus, the apostles, saints, martyrs and angels to the square with its wide welcoming arms ready to embrace the faithful.  See the giant stone obelisk that stood witness in the center, as it had stood witness over the crucifixion of Peter nearly two millennia before.

See just beyond the yellow beige walls of Vatican City, ten angels, each bearing a symbol of the Passion, heralding the way along Ponte Sant’angelo to the Mausoleum of Hadrian, renamed Castel Sant’angelo, after the Archangel Michael appeared atop it, sheathing his sword as a sign that the plague of 590 was over, and where fifteen centuries later, Puccini would set the last act of his operatic tour de force Tosca.

See in the distance the Monument Nazionale a Vittorio Emanuele II, the Altare della Patria, or more commonly il Vittoriano, looming large and glaring white, la grande tarte or la macchina da scrivere the Romans frequently and not always affectionately referred to it as.

And peeling back the layers of history, she could see how the seven great hills of Rome which where once home to shepherds, then villages of wattle and daub huts that only much later gave way to brick and mortar. How Rome’s first emperor Augustus made good on his boast that he found Rome a city of brick and left it a city of marble. How from trade and taxes Rome grew to munificence, became la civiltà and the center of the western world. Il Colosseo wasn’t in ruins. The Forum, the center of civic and social life. A Rome rebuilt by Nero, the city a phoenix rising from the flames.

Though Rome wasn’t always grand. Having seen the rise and fall of its empire and emperors and the more than half-century absence of the Pope during the Avignon papacies, Medieval Roma was then little more than squalid ruins. Even Constantine’s St. Peter’s crumbled from disuse.

Until the 15th Century when in hopes of creating una città di Dio, a city of God, one fit to be the capital of the Christian World, Rome was reborn at the hands of Michelangelo, Bernini, Boromini and those of their lavish papal benefactors, so that once more, tutte le strade portano a Roma, all roads lead to Rome.

Grissom’s voice trailed off and his narration done, Sara opened her eyes. She grinned unable to conceal her amazement.

“You sure you’ve never been to Rome before?”

*******

Continued in It Never Rains but It Pours

1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. grissomsgirl72
    Oct 31, 2010 @ 21:09:50

    OMG if I could write half as great as you…I’ve never been to any of these places yet I feel through your words and descriptions that I’m walking along side our favorite couple and partaking in the conversations, sights and sounds that each of your stories bring to life……Fantastic….I can’t wait for more.

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