Book Review: The only Rome guidebook you’ll need
The only Rome guidebook you’ll need
Rome: A Pilgrim Guide by Fr Michael Rear, Gracewing, 273pp; £14.99. reviewed by Dora Nash
Perhaps a common reaction to picking up A Pilgrim Guide to Rome might be to wonder how many such volumes the world really needs. Compared with the many existing glossy and beautifully illustrated secular guides, can a simple black and white
version compete? Why weigh down the suitcase with an extra book of tourist piety? For the Catholic pilgrim visitor to Rome, however, this volume by Fr. Rear does something different, skilfully blending as it does the sacred and profane, ancient and modern, factual and spiritual, weighty and inconsequential.
Good for several trips
Anyone who has ever made the mistake of tramping about southern European cities in the heat without proper planning will readily appreciate the way that this excellent book is organised. The eight principal chapters group the sights (and the sites) thematically and in broadly historical order, “In the Steps of the first Christians”, “From Persecution to Freedom – Building Churches”, “A Stroll around Baroque Rome “, and so on. The concluding chapter outlines suggested “Visits Outside Rome”. The places described in each chapter could fill the best part of a week if you visited everything in a leisurely fashion and punctuated the day with long lunches and siestas, so this guide might be good for several trips to Rome.
An urbane cicerone
It is difficult to get the tone of such a volume just right, but Fr Rear manages it well, avoiding dull lists, know-it-all assumptions and too much fussy detail. His prose style has the effect of welcoming the reader on a fascinating ramble with a very knowledgeable and urbane cicerone who knows not to lecture or preach, and who does not have a penchant for hagiography.
Sensibly, the author begins at the beginning: booking things in advance before you go. He includes a wide range of activities on offer which the novice visitor to Rome might not know about, a walking tour of the Vatican Gardens for example and a guided tour of the Chiesa Nuova. Pilgrims are duly and repeatedly warned about the closure of many sites between lunch and about four in the afternoon, and the sheer hopelessness of Mondays. (He wisely omits to say how frustrating booking things on Italian websites can be: there are some things best left to experience.)
History and details
The ensuing chapters follow a pattern. A general historical introduction precedes the main text. He starts the pilgrims off in a particular spot – having told them how to get there - and invites them to look at and appreciate the setting, the topography and the exterior. When he moves inside, the wealth of his own knowledge becomes apparent as he details individual works of art, altars, alterations over time and their historical context. I offer this example, highlights of a description of San Giorgio in Velabro, a little off the well-worn tourist trail, in Trastevere:
In this valley, known as Velabrum, close to the Tiber and prone to flooding (a high water mark of 1870 can be seen in the portico), was the swamp where Romulus and Remus were said to have been suckled by the she-wolf. There was a church here in the fourth century, and … Pope St Gregory the Great made it a diaconia from which the deacons distributed food. The church was enlarged in the seventh century making use of antique columns…. The apse was decorated with frescoes by Pietro Cavallini, a Roman artist who moved away from the Byzantine style and was an important influence on Giotto…. If you look carefully from the back you will think that your eyes are playing tricks because the walls are not parallel…. St John Henry Newman was a Cardinal Deacon here.… In July 1993 a car bomb blew the portico apart and what you see is a perfect reconstruction.
Prayers and drawings
With Fr. Rear we stroll casually through the centuries from pre-Roman legend to the harsh realities of our own day. The walk continues with good directions given to the next site, sometimes including bus stop information. It is not all churches either; the ancient Roman monuments get their full share of the commentary from the most famous tourist spots like the Colosseum to the more obscure such as the Minerva Obelisk.
Each chapter includes a well-chosen prayer or two, or a quotation from a spiritual work which has some link to a church or spot being described. An excellent example of this is the lengthy extract from the account of St Augustine’s parting from his mother, St. Monica, at Ostia Antica. And the whole book is peppered with very good line drawings, some of them exquisite. Simple, clear maps of each area visited take the user from site to site with ease.
For the novice and the seasoned
A final practical chapter on the buses and the metro of the city is invaluable, and there are suggestions for hotels for different budgets and places to eat. The guide concludes with an excellent index.
This is a book I wish I had written. Steeped in a thorough everyday working knowledge – and a great love – of the Eternal City, Fr. Rear has produced a truly excellent Pilgrim Guide for both the novice Rome-tripper and the seasoned visitor. I don’t think you will need to take any other guide book with you.
Dora Nash was Head of Religious Studies for many years at The Oratory School near Reading. She is the author of two sacramental preparation books: Confirmed in the Faith (Gracewing) and Jesus Comes to Me (St. Paul’s).