First Person

Santa Maria Maggiore, Alberto Pisa, 1905. Public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In Rome in June the heat is liquid, a flood. It is the worst drought in seventy years. The heat rises from the paving stones. In Monti, a few streets from the Colosseum, the air shimmers in the Piazza degli Zingari and up the Via del Boschetto. From there, the Via Panisperna dips down toward the Piazza Venezia, which by the mid-morning has turned into a cauldron. By noon the water-sellers are sold out. In the Val d’Orcia, the obsidian and alabaster hills are now a dismal shade of yellow and my friend Katia opens the door overlooking the valley and prays for rain.

By July it is impossible to go out except in the early morning or in the evening. There are no fans for sale at the shop near the Madonna dei Monti where an old couple, a man and a woman, sit outside on camp stools; the place where I bought what I thought was an iron and when I came back to the flat with its tiny balcony and unpacked it, it turned out to be an electric carving knife. It is too hot even to sit by the fountain until late in the afternoon when an awning of shade creaks over the piazza, but inside the churches it is cool. Drawing a circle around the piazza, there are six churches within seven hundred feet of the fountain: the Basilica di San Pietro in Vincoli, in which the chains that bound Saint Peter are held in a reliquary; the basilicas dedicated to the martyred sisters Pudenziana and Prassede, which house the bones of three thousand martyrs and a portion of the pillar on which Christ was flogged; the church of Santa Maria dei Monti, on the site of a fourteenth century convent; the church of San Silvestro e Martino, on the Via Cavour which in the summer is lined by white magnolias, their waxy blossoms hidden in the burnt-edged leaves. In Rome, we learn, there is a phone app on which to find Masses at the nine-hundred odd churches throughout the city, called Ding, Dang, Dong, after the lyrics of the song about slumbering Giocomo—”Frere Jacques”which appear as a web full of stars.

The sixth and by far the largest church, Santa Maria Maggiore, looms like a mother spider over the smaller churches and basilicas, pulling up the threads of the strade from the Via Cavour, towering over the magnolias, the reliquaries, the bakery with a scale model of the Colosseum in bread in the window, the Chinese markets piled high with espadrilles on the Esquiline Hill, which never seem to have any customers, the tourists fanning themselves by the barely liquid fountain, the man at the kiosk by San Pietro in Vincoli who has directed every passerby to his brother’s restaurant, Trattoria di Roma, near the cash machine by the Cavour station, for thirty years. Pasta! he says, Coca-Cola! Rome is a game of cat’s cradle. In Monti, an early morning walk is a pulled string drawn up towards the huge basilica, whose enormous facade looks more like a courthouse or a bank than a church. The piazza which folds down from the steps like a baby’s bib is white hot at 9 A.M. All the doors are closed, or are they? No. A white tent is set up at the south entrance, which is reached by following a line of metal fencing, permanently askew. Santa Maria Maggiore is part of the Holy See; to enter is to go from one country, Italy, to another, an embassy of the Vatican. Two young men wearing army uniforms are drinking coffee, their feet on the desk, machine guns on the folding chair beside them. They wave a visitor through.

In the mosaic in the apse by Jacopo Torriti, Mary in her blue robes sits next to Christ, floating over a moon the size of a thumbprint. The girls who come in from the street with bare shoulders are given blue paper shawls by the guards, so that they wander around the Basilica looking like madonnas who have been culled from the mosaics, or left to make up their own stories as they go along, as, in any case, we all do. In 352, during the Pontificate of Liberius, when a Roman nobleman, John, and his wife, a childless couple, decided to dedicate their fortune to the church they asked for a sign of what to do: it snowed in August on the Esquiline Hill, and the drifts outlined what would become the perimeters of Santa Maria Maggiore, sometimes, then as now called Santa Maria della Neve, Saint Mary of the Snow, a Pointillist panel written on the fine silk of the past, drawn through the eye of a needle. Every August, white rose petals float down through the nave to commemorate the groundbreaking.

What to do? The church is cool after the hot tar of the street, the blue clad girls drift under the gold coffered ceiling and down Bernini’s spiral stair. To the left of the entrance is the Cappella Sforza, the last work of Michelangelo, who, at eighty-seven, supervised every detail, day by day. An elliptical space framed by a columns, open only for silence and prayer. Inside the grille, three or four people, scattered in the pews, heads down. It is like being inside an egg, or a sea urchin. Years ago on an island off Maine, the beach was strewn with sea urchins, each one a pale green basilica striped white with salt, and in an old bottle washed up by the tide the children found a message: I will be gone when this you find. A moment that passed, like a melody, into story, as when the angel came to Mary and said, Yes: You.

Alighting on the pediments over the high recessed doors are four languorous angels, two on each side, who look as if they have touched down for a picnic; one has a pipe in his hands, another can’t be bothered to do anything but purse his mouth to whistle. They take no notice of the penitents below, as if for them we barely exist, ghosts of ghosts, replaced one after another as they watch, century after century, at every moment they look as if they are about to take off through the tent of the roof. Each time I went into the chapel on those very hot days, I thought: They will be gone. But there they were, gamboling, whistling.

I wanted to walk as I usually do in Rome, circling down from the Gianicolo up to the Villa Ada and back, and I was angry at the heat, which prevented me from walking until the evening, and at being in Rome again without you, as if Rome for me would always be a city where you were not. Months ago, at the beginning of the year, we went to the very end of the Cape and looked for shells in the bracken. I said, Next time I drive down this road my father will be dead. And in the evenings at the hotel, we watched hours of a film that led to only one thing: an ending, a concert on a roof, where a band of troubadours alit for a moment before they left the earth, the tunes from the amplifier eddying down into the street, where at lunchtime the office workers looked up and saw something amazing: as if love like everything else has only one way to go, the atoms rising up and dispersing. Oh, we want to say, come back, come back to where you once belonged. And then I see that I have it confused, I barely know to whom I am speaking, or whom it is I have missed so desperately, nor why I think I will find it here, in Rome, waiting for August when the white rose petals will float down through the nave of Santa Maria Maggiore, wondering what are they waiting for, these angels, or if it is absence I crave, making a home far from home, among the silver threads of the basilicas, built on their abacus of bones.

Cynthia Zarin’s most recent book is In Italy: Venice, Rome and Beyond, from which this essay is adapted. A novel, Inverno, is forthcoming from Farrar, Straus & Giroux in January, and Next Day: New and Selected Poems is forthcoming from Alfred A. Knopf this summer. A long-time contributor to The New Yorker, Zarin teaches at Yale.