Il Papa at the Spanish Steps
Manuel and I got a very slow start on Immaculate Conception of Mary Day. This is for the record the day celebrating Mary’s Immaculate Conception—she had to be without sin to bear Jesus. I was despite very good training in Catholic ritual at first confused and trying to work out the 17 day gestation. When I was in Italy for that event four years ago the entire city shut down so I saw no compelling reason to rush us out of the apartment.
As it turns out Rome has become more capitalist and you can do just about anything except go to a museum. I had read on Wikepedia—my favorite source—that “they” line the Spanish steps with flowers in honor of Mary. So off we went. The steps themselves had no flowers but we wandered over to the giant obelisk with Mary on the top of it and encountered a stunning display of flowers attended to by nuns in various habits. Meanwhile a service with relatively decent music was being blasted out into the piazza and people seemed to be lining up for something. So we did the obvious thing—lined up with them. A group of about 50 people in wheel chairs had been brought up to the front just across the piazza so it seemed whatever it was couldn’t be far off—who would park the infirm outside on a rainy day for a long time? I started hearing murmurings of Il Papa but it seemed unlikely since security consisted of a group of municipal police wandering around aimlessly in the center of a blockade. Finally I asked and yes indeed Il papa was on the way but not for two more hours. After some debate about whether or not to stay and a few field trips out for cappucina and pizza, we embraced the event. Given that I’m writing a book largely devoted to spectacles sponsored by the pope it could count as field work and my experience of seeing John Paul say New Years Mass at St Peters about twelve years ago was truly remarkable.
Predictably the spectacle started a good 90 minutes before the grand arrival. The security got tighter and tighter with municipal police, followed by Carabinieri, followed by terrifying dudes in long black coats scanning the crowd, followed by swiss guard higher ups with purple capes. Meanwhile a variety of priests wandered around. They were all incredibly good looking as I have found are most priests in Rome. (I’ve always had a thing for Roman priests which my to which my husband remains quite tolerant) The priest guards were just as fine. This little fantasy started when we went to St Peter’s and my sister and I were totally enamored of the French priests. That fascination prompted my father to say over and over “girls!” in that stop it tone that even at the ages of 41 and 38 we still receive. This event also involved a new kind of fashion police—higher up Italian police women who made most American models look sort of frumpy. I have no idea where they hid their firearms but clearly if one is to acquire some of those boots in shop windows at the Spanish steps being law enforcement is the way to go. (The aesthetic involved gorgeous hair not bothered by the rain, ravishing boots over painted on jeans, and very dramatic coats and scarves)
Meanwhile the crowd was getting bigger and bigger and tighter and tighter and we were making all kinds of friends. About twenty minutes before Il Papa appeared security got very intense with helicopters over head and men on roofs with guns. Meanwhile a service began which involved saying a particular “Ave Maria” ten times multiple times. One of the odd things for me as a Jew is that in these circumstances I always know all the words—that’s the Renaissance musicologist part. (I believe I’m not the only one with this particular cognitive dissonance) I did somehow feel that belting it out along with the crowd wouldn’t be quite kosher. If there is one thing that distinguishes Jews from Christians it is after all the Immaculate Conception. Meanwhile the crowd was roaring and a cardinal was blessing the infirm. He only got through about ten of them before Il Papa came up in his Pope mobile. We were about ten feet from him and Manuel spent much of the time holding up the cameras belonging to short Italians so he could take pictures for them. Meanwhile the sunset had turned Mary and the buildings around her into a stunning kaleidoscope of colors that were so real they looked unreal. The juxtaposition of his slow moving bullet proof vehicle surrounded by security guys surrounded by Renaissance piazza and a flower display to trump all others seemed surreal. There was even a floral SPQR. Most people around us seemed to experience the whole thing with a mix of reverence and humor. One woman was pretty convinced that the pope could stop the rain. When it started to pour the umbrellas went up causing a spectacle of it’s own which mixed loud laughter with ave marias.
The pope then did a service. It turns out he still comes with very good musicians. I noticed an instantaneous jump in quality when the choir connected with him took over from the choir who had been on duty for the previous two hours or so. I have to admit that having just come from giving a paper on Castrati in the service of the Pope I couldn’t help but think of what the fate of those talented boy sopranos would have been in the seventeenth century. The Pope himself speaks a very slow and heavily German accented Italian. He had me convinced when he talked about the difficult place we’re in and the business of being kind to everyone, which I took to directly slam Burlesconi’s fascist policies towards otherness of any kind. But he got impressively conservative relatively quickly and it was clear that the striving for purity of body and soul that he has in mind is rather puritan at best and not at all good for people of my gender persuasion.
The whole experience to me felt like a cross between a rock concert and a southern Baptist revival. There is an element of spectacle that Jews simply do not do and I recalled why every time we’ve been to Rome I’ve thought that the kids might convert. When they were two and a half and I worked at the Vatican library they used to come and meet me for lunch and were absolutely fascinated by the pope, the churches with giant ceilings, the cardinals in red dresses, and the “mommy’s and the babies” everywhere. There is a collective zealousness involved in a ritual observance for thousands of people that I have not seen anywhere else. And in a way it does count as fieldwork. I look all the time at pictures of processions and documents about them and I try very hard to imagine the soundscape—I can’t quite get it. But this with the incongruous mix of cell phones going off, boy sopranos, a german accented Italian orator, helicopters from above and the occasional speaker reverb, must approximate some of the feeling. It also occurs to me that part of my infatuation with spectacles and with giant stadium concerts must be exactly this sensory overload—what you actually see becomes only marginally important in the experience itself.