I was definitely lost. My first night in Rome was not turning out how I anticipated, but as I wound my way through tiny, medieval streets that all looked identical and vaguely sinister, I suddenly rounded a corner and found myself in a small piazza with a fountain at its center. Old apartment buildings rose up on every side, except for where a church stood proudly. By the light of the street lamps, the gold mosaics on its façade glimmered. It was unassuming but lovely, and on that hot September night, it was incredibly beautiful and reassuring.
It wasn’t until I was about to leave Rome in December that I finally found out what that church was called: Santa Maria in Trastevere, the oldest church dedicated to Mary in all of Rome and the site of a miracle that supposedly presaged the birth of Jesus: a fountain here is said to have run with oil, and in honor of this event, the site was made a church in the fourth century. Every part of its interior shines with gold and mosaics, making it a marvelous ‘minor’ Roman basilica. When you enter the dimly lit nave, you’re struck by the effort and care that were put into preserving this space over the last dozen centuries.
That’s the thing about Rome: it has been captured in innumerable films, myriad novels, and a plethora of postcards. But it can still surprise you. I’d been to Rome twice before I studied abroad there, but I had only seen the expected attractions: the Pantheon, the Forum, the Vatican. But Rome is full of fascinations not found in guidebooks, and this church as just the beginning of my discoveries when I started living there.
Midterms are always terrible, so naturally I was unenthused when my class had to take a bus to a train to the middle of nowhere the day before our exams started. But when we finally made it past the industrial rubble to our destination, it was well worth the trip. We meandered through the ancient streets of Ostia Antica, less than thirty minutes outside of Italy’s capital, and were instantly transported millennia back in time. As I walked along ancient streets lined with tombs and houses, I marveled that anything this old could still be standing. I sat in the Roman theater, crawled through temples, and climbed to the second floor of an apartment building that had been standing for centuries. In this preserved ancient city, we saw how people used to live and tried to understand their world. It was a place frozen in time.
The ancient parts of the city are constantly being made new and adapting to life in modern Italy, however. This reuse is nowhere more apparent than in Largo Argentina, a small hole in the center of Rome. It was excavated as an archaeological site, and now the remains of several temples stand yards below street level. But the temples were given new life and are now inhabited by a host of new residents: rescued cats. They lie on the fallen columns, sleep on marble blocks, and eat off of stone floors from another era. Rome is ancient but has been lived in for centuries and has always adapted to its new residents. This balance between old and new is fragile and complex, with pollution damaging ancient art and new construction becoming more necessary, but here it seems to be working. New life in old ruins happens in Rome.
~ Carly Pope '16
© 2014 Princeton Traveler