Monday, February 15, 2010 2/15/10 - rome

In today's excerpt - by 1400 A.D., Rome's
population had declined from over a million
people at the height of the Empire, to a mere
20,000 people - and Christian tourists
shunned Roman artifacts in favor of such
relics as the finger bone of St. Thomas:

"In the early 1400s the Eternal City must
have been,
in most respects, a wretchedly uninspiring
sight, a parent that the
Florentines may well have wished to disown. A
million people had
dwelled in Rome during the height of the
Empire, but now the city's
population was less than that of Florence.
The Black Death of 1348 had
reduced numbers to 20,000, from which, over
the next fifty years, they
rose only slightly. Rome had shrunk into a
tiny area inside its ancient
walls, retreating from the seven hills to
huddle among a few streets on the
bank of the Tiber across from St. Peter's,
whose walls were in danger of
collapse. Foxes and beggars roamed the filthy
streets. Livestock grazed in
the Forum, now known as il Campo
Vaccino, 'the Field of Cows.'

monuments had suffered even worse fates. The
Temple of Jupiter was a
dunghill, and both the Theater of Pompey and
the Mausoleum of Augustus
had become quarries from which the ancient
masonry was scavenged,
some of it for buildings as far away as
Westminster Abbey. Many ancient
statues lay in shards, half buried, while
others had been burned in kilns to
make quicklime or else fertilizer for the
feeble crops. Still others were
mangers for asses and oxen. The funerary
monument of Agrippina the Elder,
the mother of Caligula, had been turned into
a measure for grain and salt.

"Rome was a dangerous and unappealing place.
There were earthquakes,
fevers, and endless wars, the latest of
which, the War of the Eight Saints,
witnessed English mercenaries laying waste to
the city. There was no trade
or industry apart from the pilgrims who
arrived from all over Europe,
clutching copies of Mirabilia urbis
romae (The wonders of Rome), which
told them which relics to see during their
stay. This guidebook directed
them to such holy sights as the finger bone
of St. Thomas in Santa Croce
in Gerusalemme, the arm of St. Anne and the
head of the Samaritan
woman converted by Christ in San Paolo fuori
le Mura, or the crib of the
infant Savior in Santa Maria Maggiore. There
was a hucksterish
atmosphere to the city: pardoners sold
indulgences from stalls in the street,
and churches advertised confessions that were
supposedly good for a
remission of infernal torture for a grand
total of 8,000 years.

"The Mirabilia urbis romae did not
direct the attention of the pilgrims to
the Roman remains that surrounded them. To
such pious Christians these
ancient ruins were so much heathen idolatry.
Worse, they were stained
with the blood of Christian martyrs. The
Baths of Diocletian, for example,
were built with the forced labor of early
Christians, many of whom
had died during the construction. Antique
images that had survived
a millennium of earthquakes, erosion, and
neglect were therefore
deliberately trampled underfoot, spat on, or
thrown to the ground and
smashed to pieces."

Ross King, Brunelleschi"s Dome,
Penguin, Copyright 2000 by Ross King, pp. 22-23.


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