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Ionarts at Large: Last Day in Rome

Thanksgiving Day in Rome was a day like any other, although mercifully the rain and unseasonably cold air that had plagued us earlier in the week gave way to some warmer, sunnier weather. In the morning my longtime vow was fulfilled by visiting the Basilica of Santa Costanza, which involved a subway ride to Termini and a relatively short trip on the 36 bus. The one-time mausoleum intended to intern the ashes of Constantia, the daughter of the Emperor Constantine, is well-trodden territory for art historians, as it contains some of the best early Christian mosaics surviving in Rome. As you can see from one of photos, it did not disappoint. (The basin of water, with two birds perched on the rim, glistens with shiny color at the center of the section shown here.) Images of these mosaics are often used to define the term syncretism in art history textbooks, as they contain imagery of vines, grapes, and wine production that could be right at home either in a late Roman Dionysian cult building or as images of the Eucharistic wine in an early Christian church. From both an architectural and artistic point of view, it is a spectacular building.

Time did not allow for a visit to San Pietro in Vincoli as planned, but I did make it to the church of San Agostino, where the earthly remains of St. Monica, the mother of St. Augustine, now rest, having been transferred from the place where she died, in Ostia. The conversation she had with Augustine in their rooms at Ostia, as she was preparing to return to her home in North Africa, is one of the most memorable passages in Book Nine of the Confessions. The church also contains, in the first side chapel on the left side of the nave, Caravaggio’s Madonna of Loreto, one of his most simply pious and wide-eyed paintings, free of the tortured overtones of so much of his work. As luck would have it, who should also be in the piazza of San Agostino that afternoon, also disappointed to learn that the church does not open until four o’clock, but Italian conductor Rinaldo Alessandrini, whose new CD was under review earlier this week.

On the way back to the Vatican side of the river, I took the photograph shown below (on the Ponte Umberto I), of the startling clouds of small, dark birds, flitting back and forth among the trees on either side of the river. A Roman informed me that they are called storni -- we call them starlings in English -- and it must have been a scene like this that Dante had in mind when he wrote of the souls in the second circle of hell, whirled about in a whirlwind like a chaotic mass of starlings (di qua, di là, di giù, di sù, as he so memorably put it -- this way, that way, up, down). The noise of wings flapping and anxious avian chatter was a wild cacophony, as were the resulting and unpredictable masses of droppings that fell.

E come li stornei ne portan l'ali
nel freddo tempo, a schiera larga e piena,
così quel fiato li spiriti mali

di qua, di là, di giù, di sù li mena;
nulla speranza li conforta mai,
non che di posa, ma di minor pena.

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