The next morning’s ambulation took us to the Roman Forum and the Colosseum. Perhaps it is the part of me that grew up on archaeology books like Gods, Graves & Scholars, but my third visit to the Forum was every bit as absorbing as my first. A burial ground for early Roman settlers, then a civic and religious center for the Republic, then the epicenter of the imperial capital, the Forum was superficially turned Christian beginning in Emperor Constantine I’s time. At its heart, though, it still exudes the bristling superiority of the pagan Empire, nowhere more so than on the Arch of Titus, whose bas-relief shows a procession carrying off the plundered riches of rebellious Judea.
Yet in this city of historical layers, supersessionism never entirely cancels out the past. The Vatican Museums, most famous for the Sistine Chapel, also contain a great deal of statuary preserved from imperial Rome. The museums’ map gallery displays intricate renderings of Italy’s civil geography beneath ceiling frescoes of sacred Biblical scenes. As essential as Rome is to Christianity, it also has been home to a Jewish community for an even longer time.
Chana and I attended the Friday-night service at the Sinagoga, Rome’s main synagogue, hearing the Sabbath welcomed with a sonorous liturgy sung by a cantorial choir. As we listened, we admired the building’s Art Nouveau design and the square aluminum dome. And after beholding all the painted and sculpted representations of the human form in Rome’s Catholic buildings, we were struck by their absence in the synagogue’s tranquilly ornate interior. After the service was over, we ate in the surrounding neighborhood, the old Jewish ghetto, where Da Giggetto features such Roman Jewish specialties as carciofi alla giudia (fried artichoke), cod fillets and zucchini flowers. When we got up to leave and looked down the street for a taxi, we spotted instead the ruins of Teatro di Marcello, begun by Julius Caesar and completed by Augustus.
Mash-ups like that never ceased, at least not until we boarded our plane back to New York, which has less than 400 years to its credit. For our final dinner in Rome, we chose San Teodoro, another exponent of alta cucina, and pampered ourselves with roast lamb, amberjack with sage, a timbale of fennel and orange, all augmented by a bottle of Sardinian vermentino. Within our eyesight the whole time, a few hundred yards and 20 centuries away, stood the marble columns of the Forum.
SAMUEL G. FREEDMAN, who last wrote for American Way about Chicago bluesman Buddy Guy, is a journalism professor at Columbia University, a columnist for The New York Times and is the author of six books. His newest book, about football and civil rights at two black colleges in the South, will be published in August 2013.