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Jewish Journal

Roman Holiday

by Rob Eshman

July 19, 2007 | 8:00 pm

Il Campo de'Fiori

Il Campo de'Fiori

On vacation in Rome, we lucked into an apartment with a terrace overlooking Campo de'Fiori. During the morning hours, the square is a bustling open-air market, and we would walk down and lose ourselves among the piles of cherries, white peaches and arugula.

By midday the vendors were gone and the cafes lining the square filled with tourists and locals -- mostly tourists. When the sun set, the crowd thickened and swelled as visiting college kids and young Italians drank and shouted and hustled until the produce vendors returned at the crack of dawn.

At the center of the square, overseeing the human parade, rose the imposing statue of a monk. I liked to sit on our terrace, coffee in hand (or grappa, depending on the time of day) and stare at the dark, unmoving cowl of Giordano Bruno.

A Dominican friar who wrote a series of brilliant treatises on the nature of the universe, Bruno was the first leading metaphysician of the 16th century to categorically accept that the sun was the center of the infinite universe.

The Roman Inquisition arrested and tried him. After seven years in prison, Bruno was dragged out, stripped naked, tied to a pole and burned at the stake in the center of Campo de'Fiori, by order of Pope Clement VIII. After the Italian unification put an end to Papal rule of Italy, leaders erected a monument to Bruno. To them he was the patron saint of free inquiry and a lasting symbol of theocracy run amok.

Now his stepped pedestal is the most convenient place in a busy square for young Americans to swig cheap Chianti from paper bags and finagle hook-ups.

"I'm under the statue!" I heard one young woman yell above the din into her cell phone. "You know, that guy in the middle."

Not far beyond the campo, the Roman skyline yielded up the imposing dome of St. Peter's Basilica. Early Sunday morning its bells wailed away like a giant's hammer beating the hull of an empty ocean liner. These were joined in staggered syncopation by bells in most of the 900 churches within Rome's ancient Aurelian Walls. I stumbled out to the balcony with an espresso and biscotti and stared down at Bruno, whose heavy-lidded eyes must have also just opened. Sociologists say the reason that Italians are now Europe's least observant Catholics is that they are still recoiling from centuries of papal rule, when temporal power was vested in a succession of autocratic, hypocritical, indulgent religious leaders. But it might also be that they just hate those sleepless Sunday mornings.

Put aside the wonderful food and wine -- for a moment -- and a European vacation becomes a trip backward in time through century after century of religious fervor. What devotion laid the mosaics in Siena's duomo? What otherworldly vision raised the façade of Notre Dame? For what heavenly reward did dukes and masons and painters and marble-cutters spend their lives and treasure creating St. Mark's? True these were symbols of power and wealth, but they were compelled and fashioned by faith.

Seeing the campo by night you would think the age of great faith had long passed. The scene is loud and raucous, all "Girls Gone Wild" and no Eternal City, not even "La Dolce Vita."

But the news beyond our terrace kept telling me religion was alive and well elsewhere: Islamic zealots in Iraq continued to blow people up. The man a mile from me in the Vatican decreed a return to the traditional Catholic Latin (Tridentine) Mass that calls for Jews to be saved, touching off another inter-religious brushfire. Democratic and Republican presidential hopefuls were lining up their pastors and prayers to prove to the American public their side was the more God-fearing. In London and Glasgow, more devout Muslims -- health care workers -- tried bombing a discotheque and an airport. Sometimes, I swear, I could look up from the Herald Tribune and see Giordano Bruno rolling his eyes.

Later in the trip, maybe as antidote to all the paintings, statues, mosaics and frescoes I'd seen, I read Christopher Hitchens' new non-fiction book, "God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything."

If Italy is among the least religious countries, the United States is one of the most -- measured by polls of church attendance, regular prayers and professed belief. That made it all the more strange that over the past few weeks Hitchens' extended anti-religious tirade rose to the top of America's best-seller lists. (It helps that the book is funny and erudite.)

Hitchens' bottom line is that religion is "violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism, tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children."

He spends a chapter dispensing with the idea that secular regimes have been crueler than faith-based ones, detailing the role of the clergy and organized religion in the growth of fascism and totalitarianism (and raising the valid point that religion's best defense shouldn't be, "Hey, we're not as bad as Stalin"). And he picks apart that strange argument that religion, for all its faults, has given us great art -- as if those duomos were worth a single innocent burned at the stake.

It was a bracing read, but ultimately as confining in its view of humanity as those stuffy, incense-choked chapels we visited.

True, religion in general, and the church specifically, has a terrible track record allowing for difference and freedom. In the Campo that lay before me, another pope, in 1553, decreed that all the Talmuds in Rome be heaped on a pyre and burned. Less than 400 years later, Pope Pius (ha!) XII refused to intervene as the Gestapo rounded up Rome's Jews from the ghetto a few blocks south of the campo and sent them to their deaths.

But Hitchens' "solution" -- to do away with religion and wait until humans somehow outgrow faith -- is reductive and absurd.

The answer seems to me to be somewhere, like the woman said about the statue of Bruno, in the middle: to accept the power and beauty and validity of faith, and to wrestle constantly with its content and consequences.

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