A Professor in Rome is like a Hand in a Glove
The Italian poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti once described Italy as having a “fetid cancer of professors, archeologists, tour guides, and antiquarians.” I was glad to learn that this provoked Italian passed away in 1944 so that his living wrath could not be appropriately applied to me. This ancient capital is a magnet that draws me, just as it has drawn scholars across the ages.
I count this trip as my sixth excursion to Italy. Each time, I come as historical theologian, antiquities romantic, and tour guide to college students. (One of those times was my twentieth wedding anniversary trip, but my wife was drug into so many antiquity sites and Baroque churches that she legitimately earned 3 credit hours of church history.) Perhaps the most rewarding component of each visit is the simple opportunity to share. Students listen in the morning as Caravaggio’s Martyrdom of St. Peter is displayed in PowerPoint, as we analyze the historical scene and the lighting of the artist. Peter’s humanity is evidenced as his Renaissance body on a crucifix is lifted up by faceless persecutors. Then, the afternoon sees the class go to Piazza del Popolo into the Santa Maria church where the Caravaggio dons the wall, larger than life, across from his Conversion of St. Paul. Nearby, the Chigi Chapel designed by Bernini, with two scenes from Daniel painted by him, offers a complementary learning experience. From the era of its design to the content of the paintings, the opportunity to share is fulfilling to this teacher.
Sharing is what professors, archeologists, and tour guides want to do. Like other walks of life, the current object of these artifacts is the legacy that comes to this generation. The calling to be the one who shares authoritatively is captivating, and the opportunity to explicate a value to a listening audience has a powerful draw. In the case of Italy, the economy has learned that tourism is a significant source of revenue. Tourist vendors have learned this also, readily available to sell a magnet, key chain, or replica of a monument or piece of art. Meanwhile, at key sites, one is always 50 feet from another itinerant vendor who will offer you sunglasses if it’s sunny and an umbrella if it’s rainy. All of this tourism testifies to the complaint of the Italian poet Marinetti, but also testifies to the depth of history, theology, art, architecture, and literature of Italy that has emerged across the eras. That’s why I go back.
At the height of my teaching with Rome With Purpose (www.RomeWithPurpose.com) this March, my oldest daughter texted from America, “Don’t you get tired of seeing that stuff?” Granted, she was able to move through the Vatican Museum (twice) in 45 minutes. However, the question echoes the sentiment of Marinetti, “When will this ever stop?” My answer to her is the same as my answer to him: “Never.” Perhaps that’s why they call Rome “the Eternal City.” The ideas that spawned in Italy and Western civilization, especially Rome, are worthy of evaluation for understanding our contemporary culture—and the next culture and the next culture. As long as Rome has something to share, people will come to it.
So, from an age when all roads led to Rome, it’s certain the roads will continue to lead archeologists and tour guides on their way there. See you at the Spanish Steps.