Monday, August 7, 2006

A great Roman building: Castel Sant'Angelo. At first I was just glad to have such a noticeable landmark near my home. (The apartment I was staying in adjoins the wall that runs from the Vatican headquarters to the fortress, along via dei Corridori: a safe outdoor hallway for the pope and his messengers.) The Tiber curves sharply around it, so that from most points of view it seems to stand in the way of the river: an illusion of arrogance. Then I liked the way it starts out squat and broadens from bottom to top: it's like the original of the Guggenheim. (I like the Guggenheim, but next to Castel Sant'Angelo it looks as thin and flimsy as turnip peelings.) As if to say: "I'm big and heavy, but I can still defy gravity." And just so we get the point, there's the statue of the Archangel Michael flying on the top. It's all so incongruous, and it works somehow.
Then, coming closer, I noticed how rough and irregular the stones at the base were; they must be very ancient, I thought. And the smooth and precise brickwork above looked much more recent. Another interesting contrast. I'm glad they didn't cover the old stones with new bricks.
All I knew about the fortress, at first, was from the last act of Tosca: the place where Cavaradossi is executed by a firing squad — a terrible dungeon, a symbol of papal oppression. But one evening I wandered in; you need a ticket, and I didn't have one, but no one stopped me. "It must be because I'm in the atrium; further on they'll ask me for my ticket." But I ventured deeper into the building, and no one stopped me. A plaque informed me that the building started as Hadrian's mausoleum. There's a model of the mausoleum as it looked in 137 AD: the cylinder is the same breadth from top to bottom, so that marvellous broadening must have happened over the centuries as the mausoleum was turned into a fortress. On top of the mausoleum there was a temple, and on top of that, a statue of the emperor where we now have Michael. I walked up the long spiral walk, gradual enough for a horse, deep in the center of the building, to Hadrian's burial chamber, which is now empty except for a plaque with Hadrian's reflections on mortality:

Animula blandula vagula
hospes comesque corporis,
quae nunc abibis in loca
pallidula, rigida, nudula,
nec, ut soles, dabis iocos

Gentle little wandering soul,
guest and companion of the body,
to what pale, stark, naked
places will you go now,
where you won't joke as you are wont

It was disconcerting, and moving, to find those five lines of affectionate, apprehensive second person intimacy at the center of that ancient pile.

I like crossing the bridge that leads straight to its entrance; it makes you feel like the ruler of the world. At night there are torches lining the bridge and surrounding the fortress. (Is that possible? That's how I remember it, but maybe there were only torches around the entrance.) In summer the castle is open until 1 am for cabaret, music, food, and some exhibits.* I wandered around taking in the views, looked down the ramparts (where Tosca jumped) at a stand-up comic, and walked past someone singing the Tarantella del Gargano.

[*There are places in Florence like this — in summer they're full of music, food, exhibits, book tables. I think London's pleasure gardens — Vauxhall and others — must have been like this. I wonder why they closed — did people stop going? What didn't they like?]

Mausoleum, fortress, dungeon, museum, performance space — that building knows more than any mortal.

Here are some marvellous pictures, including 360 degree images that swing you around the Tiber.

Coincidence: These days I'm translating the entries in Il Giornalino di Gian Burrasca about Giannino's visit to Rome. He mentions several monuments, but not the Castel Sant'Angelo.

Coincidence: on the train to Germany I was finishing Mary Renault's The Bull from the Sea. In the last chapter the aging Theseus hears of and glimpses the young Achilles. As I was reading, an eight or nine-year-old boy across the aisle told his father everything he knew about Achilles, and Patroclus, and Hector, and Alexander the Great; and he knew a lot. (Renault wrote three books about Alexander.)

Coincidence: I had just finished a soup for lunch and meant to go over to the Kaffeebaum next door for tea. (It was raining, I was far from home and deep in a book, so there seemed to be nothing else to do.) There were some books lying on a sill, and the title of one volume caught my eye: Du meine Seele Du mein Herz. This is the first line of Schumann's "Widmung" for Clara Wieck. Curious, I picked it up. "A novel about Robert Schumann," said the title page. I turned to chapter one: "All the regulars were at the Koffebaum's evening Stammtisch: Herr Wieck…"

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