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Nothing is more pleasurable or enlightening in Rome than setting out without a destination in mind; let feet lead and instinct be the guide.
Wandering through Rome
On this day, I am heading towards Piazza Navona because it “feels” right, but I am not stopping for the street entertainers; I go behind the piazza and find Via dei Coronari, a beautiful, mostly walking street lined with shops and cafes.
Making my way towards the Vatican, I stop to look in these overpriced stores filled with unique antiques, including paintings, busts of Roman emperors, and various well-crafted beautiful objects that serve no practical purpose.
The common denominator that I notice in all of these shops is that they all lack customers. “How do they pay their rent?” I wonder out loud. “How do they pay their mortgage, buy groceries, or make car payments?” I continue to say to nobody in particular.
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Year after year, decade after decade, I have seen these beautiful shops along this fascinating street, always without customers. Perhaps they come late at night, I wonder. My feet tell me to head back towards Piazza Farnese, so I cross the Corso and take a back street exiting in front of the French Embassy in the piazza; on the corner is a church, doors wide open, which I enter.
Two nuns are sitting in the back of the church with these weird straps over their veils that make it look like they are wearing a helmet. Later that night, I looked up what that odd headgear was all about and learned that it represents Christ’s crown of thorns.
They are called Bridgettine nuns and were founded in 1344; they run a little-known guesthouse on that spot.
Once I stopped staring at the nuns’ heads, I sat down to enjoy the peace. The church was immaculate, classic baroque, with a lightness about it that lifted my spirit. I said a prayer of gratitude, took one last glance at the helmeted nuns, then left.
Exploring the Jewish Quarter
My instinct took over and urged me on to the Jewish Quarter, a light-filled area with great food but with a sad history. The Jewish population was swept up in the Reformation and Counter-Reformation religious tides when Pope Paul IV moved Rome’s Jews into a flood-prone area of seven acres in 1555.
For three centuries, the Jewish inhabitants lived within these walls, having to obey a curfew and employment restrictions until the Ghetto’s walls were torn down in 1848. The Jewish residents were then granted full rights and citizenship during this period and enjoyed this boost in freedom until World War II.
When the Nazis occupied Rome, they demanded that the Jewish community pay 50 kilograms of gold as a ransom or face immediate deportation. Chief Rabbi Israel Zolli went to the Vatican for help and obtained a loan for the full amount, which would be paid back after the war.
But the loan was not needed since so many Jews and non-Jews stepped forward to donate their gold watches and jewelry to help with the ransom. But the gold payment only delayed the arrest and deportation of about 2,000 Jews, half of whom were sent to Auschwitz. Few survived; only 16 returned to Rome.
As I make my way through the Jewish Quarter, I stop to see the commemorative stone plaque to the victims of the Nazi extermination of October 16, 1943. I then turn down a side street where, among the cobblestones in front of the houses, are the names engraved in bronze of those who were forcibly removed and sent to concentration camps that day.
I pause and look down to read the bronze cobblestone at my feet: “Here lived Silvia Sermoneta, born 1897, arrested on October 10, 1943, deported, Auschwitz, assassinated July 15, 1944, on Via Salaria.”
I move on down the street to read: “Here lived Costanza Sonnino, born 1909, arrested on October 4, 1943, deported, Auschwitz, died in an unknown place at an unknown time.”
The festive restaurant and shop-filled streets are a dramatic contrast to the tragedy that unfolded in October of 1943, and as I wander through those side streets, I find myself caught up in the fear and tragedy of that day.
Fountain of the Turtles in Rome
As I step out onto the main road in that neighborhood, the Via del Portico d’Ottavia, my feet direct me to a more lighthearted monument. Soon, I find myself in front of the Fountain of the Turtles, built during the sixteenth century.
It’s a beautiful little plaza where the fountain lies outside of a building with a bricked-up window. The water is gurgling, the sun is shining, and there are few tourists here. Like all historical places in Rome, this also has its story.
It is one of love and endurance, as Duke Muzio Mattei had the fountain built overnight, outside of the window where his beloved was staying, to win this woman’s heart and the approval of her father. Permission given, the marriage took place, and so that no one else would be able to view that fountain from that angle, the window was bricked up—the crazy things one does for love.
Ancient Shopping in Rome: Trajan’s Market
It’s time to leave this area, and I feel pulled towards the Forum, so I set out in that direction by foot, eventually arriving in Piazza Venezia, where the “wedding cake” building draws tourists for photos, but I am indifferent to it. I walk past, cross the street, and find myself in Trajan’s Market, the oldest shopping complex in ancient Rome, dating from 113 CE.
There were over 150 Italian shops and offices offering goods from all over the Empire, including fruits and vegetables, spices, and fast food.
A Visit to te Angelicum in Rome
This is a less-visited section of the Forum, and it is great to be away from the crowds. Still, the sun is beating down, and I am ready for another adventure, so I circle the back of Trajan’s Market and make my way to the Angelicum. At this university, I obtained my degrees in philosophy and theology.
It had been decades since I was here last, and I didn’t even know if I could gain access since I wasn’t a student. But I climb those same stairs that I went up and down when I was 19 and soon find myself in the courtyard, surrounded by classrooms, where I had spent the academic period of my youth.
There were few people around, so I explore and go back to where the bar was; it is still there but closed today. I walk past a man with a Roman collar who looks me up and down as if he wanted to eat me alive!
Memories of Rome
I continue walking through the corridors until I find myself in the garden area. Memories of taking a philosophy exam with an Italian professor flood my mind. We paced up and down the garden paths; he asked me open-ended questions about metaphysical subjects, and I answered as best I could at the time. It was a warm and sunny memory, though probably nerve-racking back then.
Returning to the courtyard once again, I try one of the classroom doors, which is unlocked! So I search for and find the classroom where I took my philosophy classes the first year I was in Rome; I open the door and sit down at the desk where I had sat so many years before.
Here I felt I was part of a great history; the Angelicum has its roots in 1580 as the College of St. Thomas and then becoming a full-fledged Pontifical University in 1906.
Since 1932 the campus had been located on this spot which was laid out more like a monastery, having served that purpose before the Angelicum moved in and through whose corridors illustrious alumni such as Pope John Paul II made their way to class.
I sit here, reflecting on my memories and the wave of history that reached until this present moment. I feel baffled by it all but also grateful.
Somehow my feet had led me full circle; I was back where I began my education in Rome, reflecting on how my life had unfolded in ways that I would have never believed had a Roman fortune-teller foresaw it all.
It was in this place that my love for this city had sprouted; from here I took secret excursions to explore the churches and monuments, from here I took the archeology classes that gave rise to my fascination with Rome underground; it was in this place that Rome began to seduce me, and to this place she brought me this day.
In an afternoon, I had left contemporary Rome, found myself among nuns from an order dating from the 1300s, was surrounded by the Holocaust, swept up by a fountain of love, walked back in time to a mall built in 113 CE and ended up at a university founded in the 1500s, where I began my higher education. Only Rome can offer so much.
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Author Bio: Mark Tedesco is a writer and educator residing in California. Having lived in Italy for eight years, he enjoys weaving stories connecting the present to the past and exploring how deep human longings are expressed in relationships, events, culture, and history. Mark has written in the genres of travel, historical fiction, memoir, self-help, and children’s fiction.
Besides writing, Mark is an educator, and he loves to engage his students in his love of history, literature, and each person’s unique story. Mark likes to travel in his off time, but somehow, he always ends up returning to Rome where, he is convinced, other stories are waiting to be uncovered.
Where to Buy “She Seduced Me: A Love Affair with Rome“
- Amazon: Author Books
- Author website: https://www.marktedesco.com
- Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/415912.Mark_Tedesco