The tombs of Rome–where art meets death

If you’re going to your eternal rest in the Eternal City, you should go in style.

Sure, you can’t take it with you, but you can show off what you had, and with all the competition in this place you have to do something special to make an impression. Rome is filled with grandiose monuments to the dead. First there are the giant tombs and temples of the Roman emperors. They were worshiped as gods, so they always got a nice sendoff. The most famous is the mausoleum of Hadrian, a giant circular building by the River Tiber. It was so splendid that the Popes preserved it and expanded it with additional stories and fortifications before renaming it the Castel Sant’Angelo. Just a cannon shot away from Vatican City, it proved a convenient bolthole for the pontiff back in the days when he ran the Papal States, an independent nation in central Italy, and warred with his neighbors. It saved Pope Clement VII when Charles V sacked Rome in 1527. Neither Rome nor the Vatican had great defenses, but the Castel Sant’Angelo proved too much for the invaders. It’s not often a mausoleum saves lives! While it’s not one of the ten toughest castles in the world, it is an impressive tomb/fortification all the same.

Then you have the early Christians with their miles of catacombs, and the churches filled with saint’s relics. More on those in two later installments in this series. There are so many tombs and monuments both pagan and Christian that sometimes it seems Rome is dedicated to death. The city even has a Purgatory Museum.

The Renaissance was a golden age of church building. Italy, while still divided into several different nations, was a rich place. Seagoing merchants dominated the lucrative trade in the Mediterranean, and the Pope’s coffers were full from tithes and donations. Much of this money went to sponsor the great architects and artists of the age. These talented men built lavish churches and adorned them with giant paintings. The rich and powerful vied for one another to be buried in the most prestigious churches, and they commissioned tombs to match the glory of the buildings.

Every Renaissance church in Rome is filled with these masterpieces of funerary art. Marble bishops lie in state flanked by angels. The walls are adorned with paintings of noblemen surrounded by reminders of life’s brevity–skulls on wings, hourglasses, and the grim Reaper with his scythe. Even the floors are covered in tombs. Most are smooth flagstones, but on some floor tombs bishops and cardinals had their likenesses carved in bas-relief. While these are not the most impressive of the graves, they’re perhaps the most poignant. Centuries of visitors have walked over them until their features have blurred beyond recognition, and their epitaphs have been lost. These powerful clergymen, respected and feared in their time, have all but melted away.

This is the second in a series about my Vacation with the Dead: Exploring Rome’s Sinister Side. Tune in tomorrow as we visit Italy’s fallen heroes in the Military Museums of Rome!


Big in Japan: Happy Birthday Emperor Hisahito

Last week I was moving into a new apartment here in Tokyo, which is why I completely forget to wish a big ‘Happy Birthday!’ ( ?????????????????, tanjoubi omedetou) to the future Emperor of Japan, Prince Hisahito.

By the way, before I get a lot of angry postings on this column, let’s clear up some nomenclature. Hirohito, the infamous Emperor Showa who thrust an imperialistic Japan into an expansionist campaign during World War II, is not the cute and cuddly toddler, Prince Hisahito, pictured to the right.

Truth be told however, Emperor Hirohito was the great-grandfather of Prince Hisahito, so there’s a good chance that the persimmon might not fall too far from the tree.

Needless to say, the media coverage regarding the first birthday of the prince was something akin to the Superbowl meets Wimbledon. The Imperial Household Agency released video footage of the birthday party, and every major Japanese newspaper published pictures of the boy on their front pages, somewhere between articles on the Japanese economy and the Iraq War.

According to the papers, the drooling toddler wore a white shirt and blue overalls for his meeting with Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko. His mother, Princess Kiko, told reporters that Hisahito was as an active baby who simply couldn’t stop walking and talking.

“His Highness Prince Hisahito is walking with support and crawling on stairs, and his activity has grown vigorous particularly in the past month,” the Princess said in a statement. “He likes picture books and turns the pages himself.”

The Imperial Household Agency also released a rare statement: ‘Prince Hisahito has been growing up in good health without getting sick. On sunny days his mother often strolls around the palace garden with him.’

For those of you not versed in the politics of the Chrysanthemum Throne, Japan’s controversial (to say the least) royal family, it is important to know that Hisahito was the first male born into the royal family for 41 years. His birth averted a succession crisis in Japan, where only men can be monarchs.

Emperor Akihito has two sons, Naruhito and Akishino. Prince Hisahito is the son of Prince Akishino, the emperor’s younger son. The little boy has two older sisters, Princess Mako and Princess Kako. The emperor’s elder son, Crown Prince Naruhito, and his wife Princess Masako have a young daughter, Princess Aiko, who is pictured below.

So, to make things simple, if Naruhito died without a male heir, Akishino would become emperor. His baby son, Hisahito, would then become next in line to the Chrysanthemum Throne.

Here is where things get interesting.

Prior to the birth of Hisahito, Japan’s former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi had been advocating constitutional reform to allow women to ascend to the throne. If passed, this legislation would have allowed Princess Aiko to become Japan’s first empress. However, although the reform was supported by the general public, Japan’s conservative politicians were up in arms.

Of course, the much-needed debate was shelved entirely when news of Princess Kiko’s pregnancy was announced.

Politics aside, Hisahito is a cute little kid, so hopefully you can all join me in wishing the pudgy little guy a very happy first birthday.

** All photos courtesy of the Associated Press (AP) **