SENILIA - I walk towards death wherever I am
My wife and my daughters tell me that I do not get enough sleep. They know and have read that we humans should sleep for at least eight hours, if we do not do it we are threatened by Alzheimer's disease and senility. I assume they are right, usually I do not sleep for more than six hours.
However, I dream every night and am looking forward to those dreams. It has been stated that we experience three to five dreams per night. It has also been found that we are dreaming when our pupils during sleep are moving fast back and forth (REM, Rapid Eye Movement). Generally, during eight hours of sleep this happens for two hours.
We do not know much more than that about the character, origin and meaning of dreams. However, since we all dream all of us probably have their own theories about the meaning and function of dreams. Nevertheless, dreaming is not a unique human trait. What are the prerequisites for a dream? Intelligence? Feelings? Experience? Reflection? Planning? I do not have the slightest idea. Most mammals dream. Dolphins do not dream as much as we humans, but armadillos and opossums dream more than we do.
Recently, I once again watched Christopher Nolan's 2010 movie Inception. I have seen several of his films and then become fascinated by how Nolan allows his characters' inner lives and delusions to affect action in such a way that inner and outer worlds are mixed up. For example, in Nolan´s Insomnia, which takes place in Alaska, I recognized a sensation I had experienced while staying in northern Sweden during a summer month. I discovered how the absence of darkness, the bright nights´ opaque light, affected me. It was difficult to fall asleep and I began to feel lost, as if suffering from a light, but constant inebriation.
In these days when cyberspace occupies an ever-increasing space in the life of many people and even threatens to separate some of us from everyday life, it has become increasingly common with narratives about people becoming lost in parallel worlds; within dreams or computer games.
Among other sources of inspiration, it is possible that Nolan's Inception was influenced by Gabriele Salvatores´s movie Nirvana, made thirteen years earlier. In Nirvana, a virtual world is for its creator transformed into reality. The successful computer game designer Jimi has provided the characters of one of his a computer games with feelings and thoughts, trying to make them independent and difficult to predict for those who want to master the game. However, Jimi becomes a victim of his own creation and goes astray within an absurd, parallel existence where he eventually loses himself.
Attracted by a captivating movie poster I entered a Roman cinema, though due to the Italian language, as well as a quite confusing and complicated sequence of events, I was soon caught by feeling not entirely different from the one I had in northern Sweden. I felt like a stranger, alien to the strange place where I had ended up.
Within Inception, characters move around in a parallel reality. In a world of dreams. The film is better, more efficiently narrated and accessible than Salvatores´s Nirvana. Already from the start, illusion is allowed to distort reality. People adapt to and try to influence a world where time and boundaries are fluid. Like Chinese boxes their dreams enclose one another. The main characters jointly fall asleep and then share the same dream, only to find that they wake up in another. In this way they enter deeper and deeper into one of the dreamers´ subconscious mind. They reach a third level, while three of them continue their descent even deeper into the subconscious. Like Arctic Shamans or Australian Aborigines, they are guided by persons who have been in the dream worlds and become familiar with the topography and rules of this alien existence. We know these Psychopomps, soul guides, from Vergilius´s Aeneid (the Cumae Sibyl) and Dante's Divina Commedia (Vergilius and Beatrice).
This reminds me of a painting by Jacopo Tintoretto I Sogni degli uomini, People's dreams, from1550. Here we also find ourselves in a world of dreams. We realize it through the presence of the poppy flowers by Morpheus´s left foot. Poppy is the flower of sleep, while Morpheus is the god of dreams. He steps on Chronos, god of time (to be quite exact ̶ linear/chronological time). In dreams, time is irrelevant, or at least flexible, something that is pointed out in Inception, in which the deeper you descend in the dream world the more elongated time becomes. At the first dream level what seems to be several hours is equivalent to a few minutes in reality. However, the further into the depths of our subconscious you come these minutes do in dreams correspond to years, even decades and perhaps even more than that.
In Tintoretto's Sogni, ten men and women sleep while Morphus points to dreams above them. Is Morpheus their psychopomp? Is it he who controls and directs the sleepers´ dreams? Are the dreamers in the painting, like those in Inception, dreaming the same dream? In Tintoretto's painting we see Rumour with her trumpet. Wealth, who lets gold coins rain down on the sleepers below, some monsters can be seen and behind Rumour, Love opens her arms, while her son Amor hovers over it all. In the background, Zeus sits on a winged throne and through his thunderbolts he sets the stars and other heavenly bodies, the entire Universe, in motion ̶ Dreams are ruled by eternity.
Tintoretto painted several dream visions. Possibly it was particularily common in those days to speculate about dreams. Maybe it has always been like that. We humans spend a great deal of our lives dreaming. Shakespeare often wrote about dreams. Feasibly this came natural to a writer and dramaturge ̶ such people live by their imagination. Though, what is fantasy? Where does the word come from? Probably from the Greek phantasesthai, "to make visible", phainein is "to bring into the light" and phaos, or phos, are "light".
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.
Is the Universe God's visible dream? Fantasy brings our inner thoughts and feelings into the light. Our dreams obtain a shape, becomes visible, a personal interpretation of human existence. As Shakespeare writes in The Tempest ̶ the entire Creation might even be a reality dreamed. A fantasy by God. We are actors in His dream, His spectacular theatre performance. Everything is an illusion, a spectacle. The curtain rises only to be lowered again after the performance. Nothing was real, after all it was just a short dream:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself.
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with sleep.
And what is Cervantes Don Quijote about? If not about an idealist who perceives the Creation in light of his own imagination and acts on the basis of that illusion. Thirty years after the death of Cervantes and Shakespeare in 1616, Cervantes´s compatriot Calderon de La Barca wrote a play about a nobleman whose father suspected that his son was a brutal maniac and therefore had him locked up. When this Sigismund came of age his father repented his cruelty and released his son. Filled with anger and a thirst for revenge Sigismund proved to be just as inhumanly cruel as his father had feared and he had his son locked up again while his gaolers succeed to convince Sigismund that his time in freedom had been nothing more than a passing nightmare.
What is this life? A frenzy, an illusion,
A shadow, a delirium, a fiction.
The greatest good's but little, and this life
Is but a dream, and dreams are only dreams.
A work that exclusively transpires within dream worlds, where the main character, like in Inception, moves from dream to dream, is Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, a work that in 1499 was published in Venice by the renowned printer Aldus Manutius.
Eighteen years ago my friend Mats Olin, bookseller and polyhistor, gave me an unusually beautiful and bound copy of this strange book. It was a translation made by Joscelyn Godwin, strange even he. I have several of Godwin's books; one that deals with music and mystique, as well as superbly illustrated biographies about Robert Fludd and Athanasius Kircher. Obviously, Godwin is a learned man, though what I find to be somewhat worrying about him is that Godwin compiled a serious anthology with writings by the charlatan Paul Brunton. For an amusing depiction of this astounding pretender I recommend Jeffery Masson's My Father's Guru, in which he describes his childhood and youth in the shadow of this strange man, who lived in his family home and through his bizarre ideas controlled all family members. If someone has spent an entire lifetime enclosed within an absurd, self-indulgent dream, it was undoubtedly Paul Brunton.
Even more worrying is that Godwin also translated the fringe fanatic and neo-fascist Julius Evola´s Cavalcare La Tigre, Riding the Tiger, and is furthermore writing books about dubious, esoteric faternities.
Well, even though I have my doubts about Joscelyn Godwin it does not hinder me from occasionally browsing through Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, enjoying the illustrations and pondering about this odd work of art, which was published anonymously but now is considered to have been written by a Dominican monk named Francesco Colonna, one of those renaissance intellectuals who became so fascinated by the writings of old Romans and Greeks that they eventually replaced their Christian faith with platonic and hermetic philosophies and mysteries. Colonna was one of several monks and prelates who were not particular uncommon before the Counterreformation largely discontinued their way of life, or at least forced it underground. Colonna was excused from living within a monastery and alternated from city to city. He appears to mainly have been moving between Venice and Treviso. Colonna earned his living by being paid to say masses, by writing and craftsmanship. It happened that he became banned and expelled from Church service and monasteries, only to repeatedly be recruited and favoured by nobles and wealthy prelates. Well-read, erudite and an intimate friend with several influential artists, Colonna was knowledgeable about art, architecture and antique literature, while frequently being accused of loose living and petty fraud.
The well-known art expert Maurizio Calvesi has written an extensive work in which he apparently proves that Colonna wrote Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. However, according to Godwin's careful analysis and the fact that Calvesi often identifies not entirely verifiable authors to more or less anonymous works and artworks, reasonable doubts remain about Colonna as the author of this fascinating book.
Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, a title that can be translated as Poliphilo's Strife of Love within a Dream is quite eccentric, yet captivating. A labyrinthine story, filled with bizarre incidents and extremely detailed depictions of nature and buildings, which often are so myopic that they become utterly unrealistic. Much in the Hypnerotamachia reminds me of Raymond Roussel's insane Locus Solus, written four hundred years later.
The novel, or what it might be called, tells us how Poliphilo, after his desirable Polia has deserted him, is lost in a forest where he is threatened by dragons and wolves, but also encounters and admires remarkable ruins, enormous gates, palaces, pyramids, and colossal sculptures. Poliphilo is even able to climb into one of these statues; a huge, resting, male figure, which turns out to be hollow.
With the aid of his hair one could climb upon his chest, then reach his lamenting mouth by the way of the dense twisted hairs of his beard. This opening was completely empty; and so, urged by on by curiosity, I proceeded down the stairs that were in his throat, thence into his stomach, and so by intricate passageways, and in some terror, to all other parts of his internal viscera. The Oh! what a marvellous idea! I could see all the parts from the inside, as if in a transparent human body: nerves, veins, muscles and flesh.
And so on. When Poliphilo loses himself in descriptions of works of art, buildings and ruins, he continues to portray them page up and page down. Beautiful nymphs appear and bring Poliphilo through meadows and groves to meet their queen Eleuthterydia, Free Will, by whom he is offered exquisite food and is entertained with celestial music within a marble hall decorated with marvellous mosaics. After Poliphilo has thanked her and demonstrated his humble reverence, Eleuthterydia presents him to her most trusted nymphs Logistica, Reason and Thelemia, Desire, ordering them to bring Polophilo to three gates over which there are inscriptions in four languages; Arabic, Hebrew, Greek and Latin. The first gate is opened and Polophilo is met by an old lady pointing out a rocky path, this is the path of Christian deprivation and Poliphilo avoids taking it. The other gate is opened up and a powerfully built lady shows him the way to a mountain road, this is the road to fame and admiration. None of these propositions appeals to Polophilo, but when the third gate is opened and he meets his Polia, who indicates a flower-covered road, Poliphilo follows her through the gate.
Standing hand in hand Polia and Poliphilo witness a sumptuous triumphal procession, which on carnival floats, drawn by real and fable animals offer live presentations of Zeus´s love adventures. After witnessing this pageant Polia and Polophilo ends within a magnificent round temple and the impressed Poliphilo spends no less than twenty-four pages on a detailed description of the building. Within the temple, Polia and Poliphilo are summoned by the High Piest of Love and after being married through an elaborate, pagan ceremony, they are brought to the bathing facilities of Venus and Mars. Within this divine spa, they witness how the war god is released from his armour and weapons to become united with the goddess of love. Afterwards, Venus presents the newly married couple to her son Cupido, who spreads his big wings to become sails for a craft, which furthermore is expertly rowed by six stunning nymphs dressed in translucent tulle. They are called Extravagance, Youth, Luxury, Happiness, Safety and Belonging, moving their oars in harmony with their otherworldly singing as the boat steers towards Cytherea, Island of Bliss.
However, when they arrived at Cytherea, Polia suddenly appeared to be unwilling to accept Poliphilo's embraces. As if to distract him she indicates the remarkable buildings surrounding them and Poliphilo´s passionate fascination with architecture overwhelms him. After many pages of architectural indulgence Poliphilo suddenly once more directs his attention towards Polia, but she is nowhere to be found.
Desperate from worries and despair, Poliphilo is scatter-brained scuttling around the island until he finds Polia sitting at the centre of a group of nymphs. She is telling her attentive listeners how she in a dream had seen Cupid murdering and cutting up a loving couple. Horrified she had run for shelter in The Temple of Chastity, though even there she had been close to being raped by a gang of thugs:
Their faces were hideous and deformed, dusky and leaden in colour, covered in fissures and wrinkles. Their goat-like hair was greasy and filthy, grizzled with black and grey, it looked like the bark of an old elm-tree. Their broad, calloused hands were bloody and slimy, with stinking fingers and vile nails that they seemed eager to use cruelly against me, a poor maiden. They swore and blasphemed, furrowing their hairy brows and lowering their eyelids above their turgid cheeks.
Polia continues to describe in more detail how these male monsters had teared off her clothes, though before everything became even worse she woke up. The appearance of the male assailants was thus a dream in a dream, but Polia continues to tell us how the love sick Poliphilo turns up in The Temple of Chastity where he faints from fatigue. Polia finds Polihpilo lying unconscious on the floor, though instead of giving him a refreshing kiss, she grabs him by the ankles and drags him into a corner.
Now Cupido intervenes, convincing Polia that, unlike what she has been imagining after her dream about him slaughtering lovers, he is far from being a cruel god and that Polio's love is not at all threat to her, but will prove to be life-giving. Polia then returns to Poliphilo, embracing him:
Then, winding her immaculate milk-white arms in an embrace around my neck, she kissed me, gently nibbling me with her coral mouth. And I quickly responded to her swelling tongue, tasting a sugary moisture that brought me to death´s door; and I was straigthway enveloped in extreme tenderness, and kissed her with a bite as sweet as honey. She, more aroused, encircled me like a garland, and she squeezed me in her amorous embrace, I saw a roseate blush strongly effusing her naturally snowy cheeks, while on her stretched skin, a mixture of scarlet rose with the calm glow of ivory was shining with the utmost grace and beauty.
However, Poliphilo abruptly finds that he hugs empty air and is thus brutally awaken from his dream. After four hundred and fifty pages, the readers understand that they have been caught up in an erudite monk's erotic dreams.
It is not only the dreamy depictions of Poliphilo's love obsession, his striving to be united with his Polia that fascinates in Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. There is also the environment, with its ruins, rocky landscapes, forests and parks, inhabited by nymphs and ancient gods. An Italian dream landscape, a mixture of Dante and classical lyricism through which the protagonist moves like a somnambulist, searching for a love he imagines will free him from the confusing world he has ended up in. Hypnerotomachia Poliphili blends outer and inner landscapes. Poliphilo's search for Polia and the descriptions he provides of her grace and beauty are strangely akin to his perceptions of nature and architecture that surrounds him, mirroring the same obsession and passion.
That feeling of slight intoxication may be similar to the one I felt when I wandered around in northern Sweden's midnight sun, or as here in Italy where I am sometimes caught up in some kind of awe, or euphoria, when Rome opens up like Matryoshka dolls, revealing layers, paths and pits leading down through thousand years of history.
I recognize myself in one of the Swedish poet Gunnar Ekelöf's poems Roman nights, in which he in Rome during a rainy winter night among its ruins comes across a kitten:
I also stopped and looked down at a kitten,
big eyed, for the first time above ground,
newborn from the gutter next to it,
engrossed by playing rat with a scrap of meat
ignorant of the dangers coming from dogs and Vespas.
I thought: You know more about the underground than I do.
Where were you born? In a dirty drain drum,
or in some partly collapsed chamber
where another marble Aphrodite lies
virginal, unseen for more than a thousand years?
Was it in her womb the scraggy, dirty
mouser brought you forth?
As Poliphilo walks in his dreams, he is often surprised by strange, ancient buildings and during these encounters he cannot avoid immersing himself in overly detailed descriptions. Here in Rome I can unexpectedly find myself standing in front of an accumulation of forgotten ancient history. Watching such remains of the past may submerge me in a pensive mood and stop me on my walk towards a grocery store or coffee bar.
Edward Gibbon, author of the monumental The History of Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire described similar feelings when he in 1764 came to Rome:
… at the distance of twenty-five years, I can neither forget nor express the strong emotions which agitated my mind as I first approached and entered the eternal City. After a sleepless night I trod with a lofty step the ruins of the Forum; each memorable spot where Romulus stood, or Tully spoke, or Caesar fell at once present to my eye; and several days of intoxication were lost or enjoyed before I could descend to a cool and minute investigation.
Like in the dreams in Inception, there are in Rome, and not just there but in almost every Italian city, layers of leftovers from bygone times. A few days ago my good friend Leif came from Sweden for a short visit. When we here in Rome are visited by friends or acquaintances, it often means a great opportunity for me to reconnect with many of the places, which over the years have fascinated me.
Yesterday, Leif and I walked through Rome's centre, visiting piazzas, churches and museums. In Santa Maria in Vallicella we asked an old janitor how we could enter the church´s orange garden, which I had visited several years earlier. Kindly, the old man told us about his church and its saint, San Filippo Neri, Rome's Apostle, benefactor and counsellor of the poor and sick. The old caretaker, crumbled and enthusiastic, explained:
̶ San Filippo has been my companion throughout life. He used to say that he had come to earth not to lead, but to serve and that's what I have been trying to do.
In the church there is a painting by Guido Reni showing how Filippo Neri humbly raises his eyes towards heaven.
A sudden shower of rain forced us to seek shelter in a tailoring. The tailor, Alberto, and his stout wife received us with the same warm enthusiasm as the church janitor. They told us about their 50 years of marriage and their son who was married to a Colombian lady. The courteous Alberto, lanky with grey hair and an impressive moustache, proudly showed off his fabrics and dressed up in one jacket after the other, while his wife, who proudly throned in a velvet armchair, stated that: "Alberto is not only a tailor, he is an artist." Alberto added that for him, a customer is a co-worker.
̶ We create a suit together. I seek inspiration in the customer's wishes and his appearance, then we create, assisted by my imagination and experience, something both of us are pleased with.
Alberto showed us a photograph where he handed over a box to Karol Wojtyła, Pope John Paul II.
̶ As you can see, he was in good shape at that time. I was contacted by someone from his staff and was summoned to the Vatican where I took measures while John Paul told me he wanted an elegant and white winter outfit that also had to be warm and comfortable. He became very pleased with my work. I soon received other orders from him and from some members of the Curia.
Neither Alberto, nor his wife, made anty attempt to flatter us or sell anything. They just spoke enthusiastically, told us about themselves and demonstrated one garment after another. When it stopped raining, we left their store and continued our walk through the city.
Every day Rome, if you take your time to appreciate the city, will surprise you, either through an unexpected meeting like the one with the tailor and his wife, or a church, monument, ruin, which you have not seen or heard about before. It is as if the city has a life of itself and, like a living being, it also appears to be endowed with a subconscious; several layers of hidden and even forgotten memories. As unexpectedly as in a dream, a place in Rome may reveal several levels ̶ dreams within in a dream. Perhaps the easiest way to experience this is through a visit to the Basilica of San Clemente, not far from the Coliseum. Conscious of the danger of being as long-winding as Poliphilo when he describes architectural wonders I will present some of its peculiarities.
Through a narrow side door you enter an overwhelming church hall and meet some features that are common in several other age-old Roman churches ̶ the cosmatesque flooring and the baroque wooden ceiling. Cosimati was a Roman craftsman family who during four generations (1190 to 1303), through its workshop provided a large number of Italian churches with geometrically intricate and aesthetically pleasing mosaic floors, created by so-called opus sectile, cut work. The floors were made by inserting triangles and rectangles of coloured stone and combine them with marble flagstones. The material came from antique Roman fragments that were cut up and reshaped to form complex mosaics.
The gilded, wooden ceiling in gold and blue was in the early eighteenth century created by Carlostefano Fontana. Similar ceilings are found in many other Roman churches, where wooden trusses, often from medieval times, remain more or less unchanged under the baroque exuberance.
San Clemente also features several unique features, such as a schola cantorum from the 5th century. The word initially referred to choirs consisting of accomplished youngsters, which during the Middle Ages constituted an important part of the Catholic mass. The scholarum cantorum were sometimes separated from the congregation by marble balustrades, an example of this is found in San Clemente. Schola cantorum eventually came to designate not only the choir, but also the marble enclosure. San Clemente´s schola cantorum was during the eleventh century brought up from a church that now lies under the floor of the current church hall.
At the same time as the new basilica was built, a mosaic was created in its apse, becoming one of the absolute masterpieces of the Middle Ages, which in its imagery includes a thousand-year tradition. The Tree of Life, which vibrant emerald vines swirls above a sparkling gold backdrop, encloses an amazing array of Christian symbols, as well as depictions of medieval everyday life. At its centre is an azure blue Cross of Christ decorated with images of doves and flanked by Virgin Mary and St. John.
Similar, swirling life trees are found in several other ancient Roman churches, something that has made researchers assume that the apse mosaic of San Clemente was copied from an older mosaic present in the church that now lies under the current building. Other hints about a dependence of an older original may be the twelve lambs (symbolizing the apostles and the twelve tribes of Israel) who are praising Christ's hallowed, sacrificial lamb. From the right the sheep enter from the gate of Jerusalem and to the left from the one of Bethlehem.
As in so many other churches, we also discover the white-bearded St. Peter, sitting to the right in the company of San Clemente, and on the left we find the black-bearded St. Paul.
As a memory of the Roman Empire, we also discern God's hand descending from the heavens holding the victory wreath that once was held above the head of victorious generals during their triumphal processions along the Roman Forum's Via Sacra.
In San Clemente's mosaic we find so much more, of which much originates from myths and legends of the later Middle Ages. For example, the legend about a seed from the fruits of the Tree of Life that got stuck in Adam´s throat and after his death sprouted, becoming the tree from which the timber used for the cross of Jesus was cut. It is this Tree of Life we see in the mosaic, covering the entire Creation. By the foot of The Cross of Christ we are reminded of the Paradise in which the tree originally grow; the four rivers of Eden come forth under the cross ̶ Phison, Gehon, Tigris and Euphrates, from which waters two deer quench their first. These stately animals, which every year sprout new, magnificent horns, thus making their bearers symbols of rebirth. At the same time, deer were sanctified as animals belonging to the chaste goddess Artemis.
Deer are not the only symbolic animals present in the mosaic; there are birds like the peacock not only revered for its beauty but also since its hard meat was considered to be indestructible and thus the bird became a symbol of Christ's flesh, present in the Eucharist.
And the rooster, symbol of light, dawn, sun and fertility. Within the mosaic he is presented as part of a daily scene depicting a lady feeding their hens.
We also find goat shepherds, cupbearers and scribes, together with pagan animals, like a dolphin, which on its back carried Arion, a young minstrel it had saved from drowning. San Clemente's mosaic pays homage to a Tree of Life that embraces the joy of life found in faith and everyday life, from age to age.
This tribute to life is not the only amazing feature in this church hall. There is also Santa Caterina's chapel, which one the Bailica´s cardinals, Branda di Castiglione, had erected during the 1410s. It was decorated by Masolino da Panicale, one of the first artists who successfully made use the newly discovered central perspective. The subject is unusual for a Catholic Church, which commonly claims that only men ought to preach the word of the Lord. The frescoes depict an Alexandrian woman's martyrdom. According to legend, the Roman Emperor Maxentius (280-312) proclaimed that Christianity should be banned from his Empire. However, the respected scholar Catherine raised her voice in defence of her Christian faith, thus succeeding in persuading the Emperor's own wife to convert to “the true religion”. The furious Maxentius sentenced his wife to death and summoned Catherine to convince fifty of Alexandria´s most distinguished scholars and philosophers about the absolute truth of Christianity. Through her superior oratory and insurmountable logic, Catherine succeeded in convincing the old, male philosophers about the sovereignty of Christianity. Nevertheless, the adamant Maxentius sentenced the heroic Catherine to be tortured until death between two nail studded wheels, the wheels broke and it was only after her beheading that Maxentius was delivered from the presence of this vociferous woman. On one of the frescoes we see how the young Catherine in front of Maxentius is preaching to a group of old men. It remains a mystery why Cardinal di Castilione ordered this cycle of frescoes celebrating a woman preacher.
Who was Saint Clemens that the church was named after? Answers may be found under the basilica. It was built above an older church, which in the fifth century had been constructed on top of a Roman villa, that had been burned down under the catastrophic fire in 64 AD, during the reign of Emperor Nero.
Legend tells us that Clemens was a Jewish slave converted to Christianity by St. Paul. Clemen's owner was a certain Titus Flavius Clemens, who was also was owner of the villa and an apartment house, insula, which remains were found under the Basilica of San Clemente. The Christian Clemens finally became one of the first popes, but was eventually deported to Crimea.
Now let us descend below San Clemente´s Basilica. For a long time it had been suspected that something was hidden below the basilica, in fact, several ancient Roman churches in Rome had been built above temples, as well as Roman villas. The latter had probably been used for Christian gatherings and many of these villas were apparently owned by wealthy women, e.g. Prisca, Prassede, Cecilia, Prudenzia, Helena, to name just a few of them. Tradition tells us that San Clemente was also built on top of a villa. In 1857, a large amount of stone was removed from under the basilica and an almost intact church appeared, with walls covered by frescoes. Most of these artworks have no either faded, or disappeared during the more than hundred years that followed the discovery, though some are still preserved.
Among the frescoes, created during different periods of time, is a painting from the early 11th century, illustrating an episode from the legend of Saint Clemens. This legend tells us how St. Clemens by Emperor Trajan was sentenced to forced labour in the mines of Crimea. However, when Clemens preached Christianity among his fellow slaves the Romans chained him to an anchor and drowned him in the Sea of Azov. After a year, the water retreated and Clemens´s body was recovered. A chapel was built on the site and Clemens was buried there. Since that time the water temporarily withdraw by the same time each year and the Christians could celebrate mass in the chapel that’s was thus uncovered. Once a woman forgot her sleeping child in the chapel and even if he survived sleeping underwater for a full year, the little boy was recovered alive when the water receded. The fresco depicts how the woman finds her unharmed child. San Clemens´s anchor rests in a corner, while fish swim in the water above the chapel.
In the fourth century church we may visit Saint Cyril´s tomb, a Byzantine monk who, along with his brother Methodius, missionized among the slaves and introduced a calligraphy adapted to the Slavic language, the Glagolitic script, which later was developed into the Cyrillic alphabet, named after Saint Cyril. In 867, the missionary brothers visited Rome and brought with them what they believed to be Saint Clemen's bones, which according to them had been found on the shores of the Sea of Azov. The bones were buried in San Clemente and the following year Cyril was entombed there as well after unexpectedly having been infected with the plague and died. His chapel is now filled with marble slabs, through which pious slaves thank him for providing them with a written language of their own. Cyril and his brother were the first to translate a greater part the Bible into a Slavic language.
San Clemente is home to another linguistic memorial. A fresco from the 10th century describes how a jealous, pagan man, Sisinnius, shadows his wife who has been heading to a mass administered by Saint Clemens. When the furious Sisinnius disturbs the sacred ceremony, he is punished with both blindness and deafness. Nevertheless, the gentle Clemens seeks out Sisinnius and heals him from his affliction. However, the Roman bureaucrat issue orders to seize his benefactor, but the vision of Clemens´s captors is distorted. Instead of capturing Saint Clemens, who stands in front of them, they struggle with a column they imagine to be Saint Clemens. The column crashes to the ground and violently rolls around while Sisinnius and his perplexed servants are unable to get a hold on it. Sisinnius roars: File dele pute, traite Gosmari. Albertel, traite. Falite derete colo pale, Carvoncelle, "Sons of harlots, come on, Goosmari! Albertel, put an effort into it! You, Carvoncelle, get in behind with a lever!” These are the first sentences written in Italian that have been discovered so far, all previous inscriptions were in Latin.
There was another fresco found in the church, which also reflects a vulgar world. Sisinnius's vernacular Italian was hardly fitting in a church and probably someone thought that a picture of the emperor Theodora was just as inappropriate. In one side aisle a portrait of Theodora can be found, probably painted during her time as the Empress (523-548). Her portrait is in a niche and on both sides are two Byzantine ladies-in-waiting depicted. It was generally assumed that the controversial Theodora before her marriage to the mighty Justinian had been a renowned prostitute. When Justinian died, one prelate was apparently disturbed by having a portrait of such a notorious lady in his church and accordingly had a halo painted behind her, as well as a child in front of here. These additions to the original fresco transformed Empress Theodora into Christ's Mother.
After dislodging the stone masses from San Clemente's lower basilica another unknown area was revealed. However, it was filled by water and after draining it a labyrinth of passageways and rooms were unveiled; the ground floors of a Roman insula, apartment house, a villa, a storage room and a Mithras sanctuary, all originating from the first century AD.
Mithras was a Syrian divinity, born in a cave he became by the Rulers of Universe; i.e. the Sun and other celestial bodies, chosen to bring salvation to the humankind. This was realized when Mithras slaughtered the Cosmic Bull, whose blood fertilized the Earth, though a scorpion poisoned it by stinging the bull's testicles making their outflow bring evil and torment to the humans. After mission accomplished, Mithras was by the Sun God celebrated with a sumptuous dinner before he was brought to Heaven in a triumphal carriage.
Mithra followers have not left any scriptures behind. What we know about them derives from numerous, often richly decorated, sanctuaries found in several places within the ancient Roman Empire, among them seventeen in Ostia and fifty in Rome, as well as writings by mainly Christian authors Judging from these sources the Mithras cult was a strict belief system, oriented exclusively towards men, who were initiated to different stages, apparently seven, along a path towards salvation.
The Mithras triclinium below San Clemente's basilica was built for the ritual meals, celebrated to commemorate Mithra's admission to the celestial sphere. Along the triclinium walls are broad ledges, which were covered with pillows and mattresses while meal-participants rested on their elbows as they shared bread and drinks (either water or wine), the ceiling above them was adorned with star constellations and indentations representing cosmic powers.
On the sides of the central altar are depictions of Cautes raising a torch, representing the god of the fertile season (21st of December to 21st of June), while Cautopates is depicted with a lowered torch, representing the “dormant season” (21st June to 21st December). In the triclinium we may also discern how the Mithra-child emerges from his cave.
After having looked inside the Mithra triclinium we may continue along a corridor and end up by a room with remains of stucco and frescoes, among a faint depiction of a bearded man, maybe a Mithraic instructor preparing novices for the trials expecting them on their path towards salvation.
We may continue our walk through the maze of rooms and storage areas of the Roman villa and the insula. We are aware of the presence of the church's weight above us, though we have not yet reached Rome's lowest cultural layers, they remain unexplored below us. There is also one of Rome's many underground streams and rivers. Through an opening in what might have been a grain magazine we can look down on clear, flowing water.
San Clemente´s layers remind of the different levels of dreams, similar to those we encountered in a movie like Inception, telling us about a journey into the depths of the subconscious, a place where time ceases. As in Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, Rome's landscape, its nature, its architecture, ruins and buried stories reflect human existence. The city becomes a living organism that like our own mind contains layers upon layers of memories, thoughts, plans and dreams. The Spirit of the Place. Everything lives, the city, we, the nature, the Universe. We are all part of everything.
A walk through Rome make us meet not only other human beings, but also traces of all those who have been here before us. We do not only travel through time and space, but also descend into our own mind, our soul. Once again ̶ Gunnar Ekelöf:
Everyone is a world, peopled
by blind beings in dark commotion
against the self the king who rules them.
In every soul thousands of souls are trapped,
in every world thousands of worlds are hidden
and these blind, these underworlds
are real and living, though incomplete,
as true as I am real. And we kings
and princes of the thousand possibilities in us
are ourselves servants, trapped
in some greater creature, whose self and being
we grasp as little as our own superior
his superior. Our own feelings have taken
the color of their love and death.
Anonymous (Francesco Colonna?) (1999) Hypnerotomachia Poliphili; The Strife of Love in a Dream. London: Thames & Hudson. Boyle, Leonard (1989) A Short Guide to St. Clement´s, Rome. Rome: Collegio San Clemente. Calderón de la Barca, Pedro (2000) ”Life is a Dream”, in Bentley, Eric (ed.) Life is a Dream and Spanish Classics. New York: Applause Theatre Books. Dieterle, Bernard and Manfred Engel (eds.) (2018) Theorizing the Dream/Savoir et théories du rêve. Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann. Gibbon, Edward (2006) Memoirs of My Life. London: Penguin Classics. Godwin, Joscelyn (2004) The Real Rule of Four. New York: The Disinformation Company. Ekelöf, Gunnar (1967) Songs of something else. Selected poems of Gunnar Ekelöf translated by Leonard Nathan and James Larson. Princeton: Princeton University Press. Masson, Jeffery Moussaieff (1993) My Father´s Guru: A Journey Through Spirituality and Disillusion. Boston: Addison-Wesley. Zanchi, Mauro (2018) “Tecniche oniriche di condizionamento” in Artedossier No. 350, Ottobre.