13 – It Never Rains but It Pours

Continued from Another Paradise and a Stairway to Heaven

 

“I’m gonna love you, like nobody’s loved you
Come rain or come shine
High as a mountain, deep as a river
Come rain or come shine…”

“Come Rain or Come Shine,” Johnny Mercer

*******

 

Best as it was to begin at the beginning or at least close to it and with Grissom as ever a man of his word, he and Sara were backtracking across the city en route to il Colosseo and il Foro Romano when the clouds which had begun to blow in mid-morning darkened and in a matter of moments, their fine spitting mist had metamorphosed into the thick, fat droplets of a spring deluge.

All of which caused Sara to shake her head. The way nothing on this vacation had gone according to plan, perhaps the fact that the sky had instantly opened up and was currently pouring sheets of rain was, she mused, just to be expected.

There was just one rather not so insignificant problem.

Earlier when they’d dropped off their things at the hotel, there hadn’t even been a hint of rain, not one. So needless to say, neither had an umbrella on them and with the day having started off so fine and all the walking making it warm enough for shirt sleeves, not a jacket either.

So much for semper paratis.

Then with it being just after noon, the customary hours for il riposo, the Italian equivalent of the Spanish siesta, of course most businesses were chiuso. And it wasn’t as if they could just stroll into un museo or una chiesa dripping wet as they were.

Plus, as apparently eaves and overhangs did not regularly feature in Roman architecture, shelter of any sort was unfortunately in short supply. So much so that they both considered themselves fortunati to be able to stumble beneath a narrow awning advertising una frutta e verdura.

In search of a more long-term solution to their precipitation problem, Grissom pulled out the phone and began to scroll through the map.

He must have readily found whatever he was looking for, as he’d quickly replaced it in his pocket and with his usual taciturnity, took Sara’s hand, tugging her down a series of strade that to her ignorant eyes looked pretty much like any of the others they’d journeyed down that day.

“We’re just about there,” he assured her.

Wherever there was.

For the narrow, almost warren-like nature of Rome’s ancient streets frequently meant that any destination wasn’t in view until you were literally right on top of it. La Chiesa di Santa Maria ad Martyrs in the Piazza della Rotonda was certainly a case in point.

That and Rome’s oldest, most intact monument wasn’t exactly your typical church. Looking more as it did like a Greek temple with its prominent pediment and sculpted frieze boldly proclaiming M. Agrippa L. f. cos. tertium. fecit. capping a towering portico of Corinthian columns, the sight of what was more commonly known as the Pantheon caught them up short.

Not that the façade was wholly unfamiliar to them, their walks through their Quartier Latin neighborhood having frequently taken them past Paris’s 18th Century neoclassical reinterpretation.

Still, it wasn’t everyday you stood in front of a two thousand year old building.

But as it so often does, practicality soon overcame wonder.

Fortunately the Pantheon was also one of the few major tourist destinations in Rome without either admission or queue to get in.

Beyond grateful to be out of the rain, they dashed through the forest of red grey marble, albeit slowing to enter via the massive bronze doors at a more sedate and respectful speed.

The gaping they’d done outside however had nothing on the wide-mouthed, wide-eyed sort once they’d stepped inside. For they weren’t much out of the flow of traffic before their eyes were drawn up the arc and expanse of the Pantheon’s lofty dome.

For nearly two millennia, this vast wonder and mystery of Roman engineering had no rival.

As tall as it was wide, its dimensions gave a sense of space as vast as time.

Its almost unearthly weightlessness had once caused a very hard to impress Michelangelo to proclaim it was of “angelic and not human design.” That he adopted a similar plan for St. Peter’s was indeed a moment of imitation being the sincerest form of flattery.

Originally commissioned by Marcus Agrippa to commemorate his victory at Actium over Antony and Cleopatra, it was a temple dedicated to pan theos – all the gods, its heptad of rientranze or niches home to marbles of the seven planetary deities. It was, too, the first templum in Rome to be open to the people and not just priests or vestals. Here animals were sacrificed and burned beneath the center of the dome, the smoke and attendant prayers rising to the gods through the nearly ten meter round oculus fourteen stories above.

Completely open to the sky as this eye of heaven was, on sunny days it cast a pillar of light, a reverse sort of sundial, along the rotunda; today, a pillar of rain.

However unexpected and awe provoking a spectacle it proved to be, that didn’t keep Sara from quipping, amused as she was at the irony, “Of all the buildings in Rome, you pick the one where it rains inside.”

Either missing the tease, intentionally ignoring it or a bit of both, as frequently could be the case with Grissom, he intoned, “Snows, too, upon occasion.”

“Now that,” she rejoined, trying to imagine it, “I’d like to see.”

In any case, at least it didn’t matter if you dripped on the floor, sloped as it was, or so Grissom proceeded to explain, to provide drainage.

That her husband knew this didn’t surprise Sara in the slightest. She’d long ago accepted the reality that he was just one of those cognoscenti, people who were well informed, in his case, on just about everything.

Still she sighed, “All I know is that Raphael is buried here.”

“‘Ille hic est Raphael, timuit quo sospite vinci, rerum magna parens et moriente mori,’” Grissom quoted. “Loosely, ‘Here lies the famous Raphael. While he lived, mother nature feared to be surpassed; now dead she fears she herself will die.’

“‘Or as Alexander Pope once quoted a friend of Swift’s saying, ‘Here Raphael lies by whose untimely end/Nature both lost a rival and a friend.’”

Sara rolled her eyes and mumbled “Show off,” under her breath before saying in a more distinct voice, “I don’t remember that bit in Dan Brown. I read Angels and Demons after The Da Vinci Code came out,” she explained. “It was really popular at the time and I wanted to see what all the fuss was about.”

Then a little guiltily at the peculiar look her husband was giving her, she shrugged and added, “It wasn’t really a crime book, Gil.”

While he made no actual reply, his unconvinced expression spoke volumes.

Though discretion being as it was the better part of valor, both decided it better to turn their attentions to their surroundings and fellow visitors. They certainly weren’t the only ones sheltering here from the rain. Although most of the others seemed to have avoided getting soaked. How exactly puzzled them both as neither could remember seeing a single umbrella before the downpour had begun.

Amongst the real enthusiasts, assorted guidebooks or MP3 players in hand or ear in the case of the latter, were the few typical bored, aimless wanderers, a rather large and noisy group of precocious young people whose comments while not in English were in a tone suggesting they were more into making crass jokes than appreciating antiquity, as well as the usual formal tour groups with their cicerone telling their tales in some languages Grissom and Sara recognized and a few they didn’t.

Although with the peculiar acoustic properties of domed chambers being what they were, one didn’t necessarily need to be close in order to take in others’ conversations. That concrete reflected rather than absorbed sound further amplified the effect, so that depending on where you stood, you could hear even whispers plain as day.

Neither exactly immune to the lure of albeit unintentional eavesdropping, Grissom and Sara found themselves not infrequently pausing in their circumnavigating of the room to listen in and occasionally comment in murmurs of their own.

“… Original burnt down several times and was struck by lightening. Despite the inscription to Agrippa outside, the current building was actually rebuilt by Emperor Hadrian…”

“… The Romans invented concrete, essentially building the Pantheon out of a simple mixture of lime, pozzolana ash and rock.”

“But not so simple a chemical interaction,” Grissom leaned in to say. “Turns out the volcanic ash was the key. Modern concrete with its origins in 19th Century cook top chemistry is made from a previously heated powder of sand, clay and lime, which is then added to water. But because the ash had already been heat-activated from the volcanic eruptions, the ancient Romans didn’t have to worry about adding heat or water to create a super strong cement that would literally last for millennia.”

“Until acid rain,” Sara chimed in.

“Until then, yes,” Grissom readily conceded.

From somewhere a guide was saying in Italian, “Il Pantheon è l’edificio più antico di Roma in uso continuo…

Causing Grissom to confide in whispered English, “Once even a fortress and a poultry market.”

Sara scoffed. “How could you possibly know that? You don’t even like chickens.”

“Don’t remind me.”

When quietly passing the chapel dedicated to King Victor Emmanuel II, they heard, “Selon les historiens contemporains des oreilles de Vénus ont été décorées avec des perles de Cléopâtre.”

“Wearing Cleopatra’s pearls or not, that Venus must have been something to see,” said Sara. “The Greeks and Romans weren’t exactly into staid marble. You didn’t hear about the exhibit at the Vatican?” she asked at the perplexed yet intrigued look her husband was giving her. “It was called something like the colori del… bianco – The Color of White.

“They used X-ray fluorescence, UV and infrared photography, spectroscopic analysis and SEM to examine some of the most famous classical figures then recreated the pigments from the results. Turns out the art was originally more peacock than prim.”

“Perhaps someone should notify Caesar’s.”

Sara gave this idea a very vigorous shake of the head. “Vegas is gaudy enough as it is.”

“So the white marbles of the renaissance and neoclassical periods were anything but traditional,” Grissom said, more statement than question. Though he did wonder one thing. “Art history class?” he asked.

“Hodges actually,” she replied, then in faux seriousness, “Yet another wonder of Trace Analysis.”

Grissom’s resultant “Why am I not surprised?” proved more fond than anything.

They lingered long enough in front of the main alter to listen to a tour guide lecture a motley group of backpackers, seniors and sightseers on the history of the Pantheon as a Catholic Church.

“… Was the first pagan temple in Rome to be Christianized,” he began. “In the same way that many pagan customs and holidays were reappropriated by the Church, so were the old houses of worship. The Pantheon went from being a temple to all the gods to a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary and all the martyrs. Its consecration in 609 saving it from abandonment, destruction and the worst of exploitation and scavenging.”

“Relatively speaking,” Grissom leaned in to clarify as they continued on their way. “Didn’t keep Emperor Constans II from removing the gilt in the ceiling. Or Pope Urban VIII from removing the bronze roof tiles. Remember Bernini’s baldacchino in St. Peter’s with all the bees?” Sara nodded. “Enough of it came from the portico decorations that the Romans of the day reportedly grumbled, ‘Quod non fecerunt barbari, fecerunt Barberini,’ ‘What the barbarians didn’t do, the Barberini did.’”

“What no bees here then?” Sara asked.

“Not for want of trying,” Grissom rejoined. “Urban wanted to redecorate the inside as well as the outside. Not a good idea. When Urban had two bell towers installed on the pronaos, the Romans nicknamed them ‘asses ears.’ Thankfully they were removed in the 19th Century.”

Sara chuckled, “The Romans do have a way with nicknames.”

But Grissom had gotten that far off distant look, the one his wife knew meant he was trying to put his finger on something, but just wasn’t quite able to. She certainly knew better than to interrupt him in any case.

Then as if whatever it was had suddenly hit him he said, “Actually there are bees.”

And without another word, he hurriedly slipped out through the great bronze doors leaving a puzzled Sara trailing not for the first time in his wake.

Catching up with him she said, “Gil, you’ve really got to stop doing that.”

Sara needn’t have bothered, deaf as he was to all remonstrances, too intent on peering upwards as he negotiated his way through the portico’s forest of columns.

Coming to an abrupt halt, he said, “Let me see your camera.”

After a moment, Grissom gestured to the pediment directly above their heads and handing the camera back to her said, “Take a look.”

Peering through the lens, Sara found atop the column that same three-bee crest that had adorned the baldachin at St. Peters.

“It appears that when one of the columns had to be replaced, Urban couldn’t resist making sure everyone knew he was the one who’d done it,” Grissom explained with a grin which Sara, despite her husband’s occasionally maddening tendencies, couldn’t help but share.

“So what’s the story?” she asked.

“Story?”

“Yeah, with all the bees. There has to be a story.”

“Why is that?” he asked in turn.

“For one,” she replied patiently, “with you there’s always a story. And two, you said so.”

As he couldn’t quite deny either of these, he was about to launch in on the whole sordid history of la famiglia Barbarini when he noticed Sara shivering, and far more concerned with the fact that it had taken him until now to notice, he promised, “Later.”

Cool and damp as the Pantheon was to begin with and them having arrived as thoroughly soaked as they both were, it was a wonder either had lasted this long. He at least had the added layer of an undershirt.

So when his attempts to rub a little warmth into her arms didn’t seem to have any effect, Grissom insisted, “We need to get you out of these wet clothes.”

And Sara’s eyebrows went up at this accordingly.

“You coming back sick won’t make Catherine happy,” Grissom maintained.

“I’m not going to get sick,” Sara assured him. “Getting caught in the rain won’t make you sick. You and I both know that.”

Grissom didn’t seem convinced nor willing to risk it.

Not that the prospect of spending the rest of the day sightseeing in wet clothing was all that appealing to begin with, and with Grissom’s quick map check informing them they were less than a mile away, Sara readily agreed that a stop back at their hotel to change was in order, even if it was still raining.

Besides, what was the worst that could happen? They’d get more wet?

So they decided to make another break for it.

In their mad dash they plunged through several deep puddles, splashing dirty water over their cuffs and the tops of their shoes. While wet clothes weren’t exactly fun, wet socks were positively revolting.

What neither of them had taken into account was that wet cobblestones had a far lower friction coefficient than the more modern pavement back home. They each nearly slipped on the slick ciottoli several times before the two of them finally tumbled all knees and elbows into a heap.

As autisti italiani were even more insane than their French counterparts, slumped in the middle of the street wasn’t exactly the safest place to dawdle. Once the initial shock wore off, they quickly clambered to their feet.

In order to catch their breath and make sure they were both still in one piece, they sought shelter in a recessed doorway providentially nearby.

While one hand gently eased a dank strand from Sara’s face, Grissom’s other tightened protectively at her waist and there was more than just concern over their tumble in his solicitous start of, “You…”

Truth was ever since that night out in the desert, the rain still occasionally made them both a little uneasy.

But when Sara cut in with “Just wet,” she meant it. Then with a smirk and a shake of the head she added sagely, “‘When it rains it pours.’”

And good as it always was to see and hear her laugh, all of Grissom’s worry melted in the way her eyes and face lit up with a sudden peal of laughter.

She had to laugh. It was just so absurd. All of it.

But Grissom didn’t join in.

His heart still racing and huddled close as they were, he could feel her breath and body hot against him.

Overcome, he kissed her.

*******

Continued in Caesura

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