February 14, 2003

Lupercalia

Lupercalia was a spring festival celebrated in ancient Rome; an antecedent, apparently, of St. Valentine’s Day:

Celebrated on Feb. 15th, Lupercalia was a fertility rite in honour of the gods Lupercus, Faunus (associated with Pan) and the founders of Rome: Romulus and Remus. The celebration began at the Lupercal cave, where the wolf Lupa was said to have suckled the infant Romulus and Remus. Afterward, priests would sacrifice a goat (symbol of fertility) and a dog (symbol of protection) to the gods, anoint themselves with the blood, and run through the streets whipping onlookers with a thong made from the goat's skin. The whipping was believed to help ease childbirth and promote fertility.

Also during the festival, young men would draw the names of eligible girls from a pot or urn […] This drawing of lots contined into the middle ages in Europe. The young man would wear the slip bearing his Valentine's name on his sleeve, and attend to the lady with flowers, gifts, and words of affection…

My love and I spent our last Lupercalia in Rome. It was my wife's first visit to the city, and the first occasion I’d had to return there in years. That particular day we went to San Pietro, which was hardly more than a fifteen-minute walk from our hotel. I am usually shy of entering churches, not feeling, as a non-believer, that I belong. Saint Peter’s is an exception, however: a place I could never tire of visiting, and one that, it seems to me, is as much a magnificent Theatre as it is a Basilica, more an expression of temporal dominion than of pious faith. I could go on about the unique quality of the light & the mellow reverberation of the echoing voices &c, but I couldn’t do the place justice in a few hastily-chosen words.

From the Basilica we took a long loop back to our hotel by way of via Cola di Rienzo, a broad, shop-lined avenue, along which we walked slowly, hand-in-hand, peering through every second or third shop-window, and where, at length, we found a street-side pizzeria that proved the perfect place to take the weight of our aching feet, & where we enjoyed a delicious late lunch. That evening, after a few hours’ rest we opted to go to a Tex-Mex place called Oliphant, on via delle Copelle, which I’d walked past that morning, recalling, if only distantly, having enjoyed a good meal there years before on the happy occasion of my loathsome boss’ odious boss’ departure.

I'd lived and worked in Rome for two gruelling years, quitting my job there in October ’97. I was burnt-out from the continual stress of the work I’d been doing, as an IT Project Manager for a satellite TV company. Even so, I felt fortunate to have had the opportunity to live in such a place, even if the experience had been far from painless. There was a leaving party of sorts, to which only a half-dozen people showed up. As a parting gift, I was presented with a silver cigarette-case, which, on occasion, will resurface from some accumulation of domestic clutter, all dented & tarnished, like my memories of that time. One recollection that shines out clearly, though, is the ride home from the restaurant that night on the back of my colleague Mr. R_______’s motorino, through quiet cobbled streets shining with autumn rain.

I took a few days out, after that, to pack up my things and bid my silent farewells to the city. This I did by walking one last time along my favourite thoroughfares, sharing as I went in that palpable sense of continuous habitation, the feeling that others had been walking these same byways every day for twenty centuries & more. I left by train, to Venice, where I had planned to spend a week before returning to the UK.

This year we are celebrating the feast of the three Saints Valentine here in Sweden, where it goes by the name of HjÀrtansdag, Heartsday. It is an occasion only slightly tainted by the lurid commercial abandon one meets with in the English-speaking world. Then again, how does one best celebrate love? With tasteful restraint or an with an effusion of kitsch? With a long weekend in Rome or Paris or Las Vegas? With chocolates, flowers, champagne and a candlelit supper? With a love-sonnet, or a handmade token? Or with animal sacrifice, public nudity and mild bondage, Lupercal-style? Should one save up expressions of love for this particular date, as custom dictates, or ought spontanaiety be allowed to prevail?

The images here are engravings by Giam Battista Piranesi (1720-1778), from his Vedute di Roma (Views of Rome) series. Clicking on the images will display them in a larger format. Even larger versions of these, and many more of Piranesi's works can be found here.

Posted by misteraitch at February 14, 2003 09:39 AM | TrackBack