Monday, October 2, 2017

The Practical and Symbolic Resonance of Water in Ancient Rome

      A short essay exploring the significance of water to ancient Rome follows.  MLA format not strictly adhered to here due to blog formatting restrictions and general readability.

The Practical and Symbolic Resonance of Water in Ancient Rome

If we pause and think about the cycle of a drop of water as it endlessly changes its form and location, we can catch a glimpse of this Christian community: past, present and future. Perhaps this drop of water on our outstretched finger once dropped as rain on the head of Christ himself. (Erickson, Online)

     One of the great wonders of ancient Rome was its ingenious strategy for bringing fresh water into the city.  With its stunning creation of aqueducts and underground system of lead pipes, it truly was called “regina aquarium, the queen of the waters.”  (Hughes, 64)  Visitors from afar must have been astonished at the abundance of clean running water within the city.  This abundance of water was a critical factor in enabling Rome’s population to expand so freely with each passing century.  According to Robert Hughes in Rome, A Cultural, Visual, and Personal History, maintaining this flow of fresh water into Rome was a complex and daunting task.
Before it could flow out of Rome, of course, the water had to flow in.  It did so mainly through aqueducts.  Eleven of these supplied the city with its drinking and washing water, eight entering by the region of the Esquiline Hill.  Four more were added after the popes replaced the emperors, two of them in the twentieth century.  No other ancient city had such a copious supply of water…  (Hughes, 64)
Water was more than a practical necessity for Rome, however.  As its many fountains like the Fontana del Nettuno (Fountain of Neptune) demonstrate, water also played a critical part in nurturing and symbolically representing the unique creativity and passion for the arts found within Rome.  From bringing water into the city in complex aqueducts, turning dry lands into productive agricultural models, and using water for artistic purposes, there was no end of the practical and symbolic resonance of water in early Rome.

     In an excellent academic paper prepared by Evan James Dembeskey for the University of South Africa, he quotes the following passage from Pliny the Elder’s Natural History concerning the wonders of the Roman aqueduct system.  (A different translation was utilized here than the one referenced by Evan Dembeskey.)
If we only take into consideration the abundant supply of water to the public, for baths, ponds, canals, household purposes, gardens, places in the suburbs, and country-houses; and then reflect upon the distances that are traversed, the arches that have been constructed, the mountains that have been pierced, the valleys that have been levelled, we must of necessity admit that there is nothing to be found worthier of our admiration throughout the whole universe.  (Pliny, EBook)
Another remarkable passage from Pliny describes the astonishing magnitude of the engineering involved in these creations.
The channels thus formed are called “corrugi,” from our word “corrivatio,” I suppose; and even when these are once made, they entail a thousand fresh labours. The fall, for instance, must be steep, that the water may be precipitated, so to say, rather than flow; and it is in this manner that it is brought from the most elevated points. Then, too, vallies and crevasses have to be united by the aid of aqueducts, and in another place impassable rocks have to be hewn away, and forced to make room for hollowed troughs of wood; the person hewing them hanging suspended all the time with ropes, so that to a spectator who views the operations from a distance, the workmen have all the appearance, not so much of wild beasts, as of birds upon the wing. Hanging thus suspended in most instances, they take the levels, and trace with lines the course the water is to take; and thus, where there is no room even for man to plant a footstep, are rivers traced out by the hand of man.  (Pliny, EBook)
It is hard to grasp the ability of an ancient people having both the understanding and the ability to accomplish such tasks.  While this appreciation is perhaps tempered by the assumed use of slaves to perform much of the backbreaking and dangerous work, the final success remains a breathtaking feat of engineering.  More than that alone, however, the Roman water system facilitated the practical survival of a large and growing Roman population, which then permitted greater attention to be placed upon the arts as well as engineering and government, public discourse.  In other words, being relieved of some of the immediate pressures of daily survival, the culture was able to mature and flourish in a way that would not have been possible otherwise.  In a substantive way, the clean water pouring through the aqueducts and out from the many fountains was quenching a cultural thirst in the same way it addressed the immediate human need.

     While further research remains required to ascertain the critical nature of agricultural irrigation within the immediate area of Rome itself, irrigation and water rights issues were critically important in North Africa and elsewhere within the Roman Empire.  (Hollander and Spanier, 3504) If rainfall could not be depended upon for agriculture, irrigation techniques were implemented where possible.  As we see from the fountain photographs at the conclusion of this essay, however, water was for far more than practical and life-sustaining purposes alone; it also conveyed the artistic richness and beauty of the Roman Empire.  This particularly must have struck the pilgrims arriving in Rome at Piazza del Popolo.  After long and difficult journeys, the sight of so much flowing water must have been truly astonishing: both welcoming the end of physical thirst and the beauty addressing something more along the lines of the thirst for beauty and the spiritual dimension.

     If water symbolized life, then there was truly an abundance of life within the Roman Empire.  The eternal nature of water, its endless cycle of change, also seems a fitting emblem for Rome.  In one sense, the mysterious quality of water represents the many and diverse citizens of Rome, but it is more than that alone.  As mentioned previously, the abundance of fresh water led to satiation of the need for drinking and bathing water, which, in turn, created an environment a little less concerned with survival alone as the goal, opening the door to wider and richer expressions of thought and the arts.  Beauty for the sake of beauty finally became something within the grasp of the common man, and that is clearly something for which we can all be thankful.  Another important dimension of the Roman contribution to western civilization, of course, is its impressive legacy of paved roads.  Together, the water and transportation systems encouraged the spread and sharing of important ideas; this certainly includes Christianity and Living Water.

Cited and Consulted Sources

Dembskey, Evan James. “The Aqueducts of Ancient Rome.” Feb. 2009, (University of South Africa)

Elder, Pliny The. Delphi Ancient Classics: Complete Works of Pliny the Elder
       (Delphi Classics). Delphi Publishing Limited, 2011. EBook.

Erickson, Karl Bjorn. “Mysterious Tools.” America Magazine, 3 July 2006,

Erickson, Karl.  Fountain and Water Photography, 2017, Rome.

Hollander, David B., and Ethan Spanier. “Irrigation, Greece and
       Rome.” The Encyclopedia of Ancient History, 2012,    

Hughes, Robert. Rome: A Cultural, Visual, and Personal History.
       New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011. Print.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

The Joy of Salvation as Reflected in the Arts

St Sebastian receives the crown and palm of martyrdom by Cerchia di Girolamo Siciolante (1570s)

...The jongleur was properly a joculator or jester; sometimes he was what we would call a juggler.  This is the point, I imagine, about the tale of Taillifer the Jongleur at the Battle of Hastings, who sang the death of Roland while he tossed up his sword and caught it, as a juggler catches balls.  Sometimes he may have been even a tumbler; like the acrobat in the beautiful legend who was called the "Tumbler of Our Lady," because he turned head over heels and stood on his head before the image of the Blessed Virgin, for which he was nobly thanks and comforted by her and the whole company of heaven.  

--Saint Francis of Assisi, G.K. Chesterton   

     A challenging question arose among from of my traveling companions as we explored the Vatican Museums a few weeks ago.  Why, he asked, were the faces of the martyrs and saints so sad?  Where was the joy of salvation evident?  The preceding Chesterton quote reminds us of the way in which joy should infuse our salvation.  Passages such as 1 Peter 1:3-9 also convey a sense of this joy.

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy we have been born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and to an inheritance which is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice,[b] though now for a little while you may have to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold which though perishable is tested by fire, may redound to praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. Without having seen[c] him you[d] love him; though you do not now see him you[e] believe in him and rejoice with unutterable and exalted joy. As the outcome of your faith you obtain the salvation of your souls.

Of course, joy is also reflected very clearly within the Psalms of David.  Take a look, for example, at Psalm 71:22-24.  

I will also praise thee with the harp

    for thy faithfulness, O my God;
I will sing praises to thee with the lyre,
    O Holy One of Israel.
My lips will shout for joy,
    when I sing praises to thee;
    my soul also, which thou hast rescued.
And my tongue will talk of thy righteous help
    all the day long,
for they have been put to shame and disgraced
    who sought to do me hurt.

     So, we see that the Bible is hardly lacking in expressions of joy and gladness.  (Of course, laughter also plays an important part.)  Why, then, does the art of the Vatican Museums seem to strongly reflect a more somber or serious level of faith?  If you take a look at the painting above as a single example, then read the 1st Chapter of Philippians, the answer begins to become a little clearer.  Bear in min, however, that the answer is more complicated than these dimensions alone might suggest.  For example, as in the case of Carvaggio, it was not uncommon for the Church to refuse acceptance of paintings that failed to meet expectations--e.g. there was financial safety in not attempting a new or provocative style.  It's also worth pointing out that the persecution of Christians by Rome certainly must have felt closer, more immediate, than it does today.  (emphasis added below)

15 Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. 16 The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel; 17 the former proclaim Christ out of partisanship, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. 18 What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed; and in that I rejoice.

19 Yes, and I shall rejoice. For I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, 20 as it is my eager expectation and hope that I shall not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body,[e] whether by life or by death. 21 For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. 22 If it is to be life in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. 23 I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. 24 But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. 25 Convinced of this, I know that I shall remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith, 26 so that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus, because of my coming to you again.

     I decided to run this question by my father-in-law, religious artist John Carroll Collier, and he offered the following words.  "Sorrow and joy are inseparable in Christianity.  The greatest joy resulted from the greatest sorrow; we were saved by the death of Christ.  This joy and sadness must always be bound together in our faith."

For further reading, see the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

1028 Because of his transcendence, God cannot be seen as he is, unless he himself opens up his mystery to man's immediate contemplation and gives him the capacity for it. The Church calls this contemplation of God in his heavenly glory "the beatific vision": 
How great will your glory and happiness be, to be allowed to see God, to be honored with sharing the joy of salvation and eternal light with Christ your Lord and God, . . . to delight in the joy of immortality in the Kingdom of heaven with the righteous and God's friends.


Wednesday, September 20, 2017

What a Journey!

From September 1st through the 18th, I walked about 110 miles between the United Kingdom and Italy.  Our journey brought us to some of the world's greatest museums in London and Rome as well as amazing archaeological sites in both the UK and Italy.

It was truly a life-changing experience, which has yielded so much more than I was expecting in knowledge, understanding, appreciation, and confidence.  The appreciation came to bear at each and every step--e.g. appreciation for the opportunity, etc.  At the current time, though, the appreciation is more focused on resting and enjoying being at home: a home that now feels like a palatial estate after the discomforts of travel.  With regards to the cramped living of Rome in particular, our 2-storey, three bathroom home in quiet Monmouth, Oregon is such a wonderful retreat for a few days of healing and rest.  It makes one not take daily luxuries quite for granted the same way anymore.  And, there's ice!

I was fortunate in that I really had only about half a dozen instances of what I would call trouble on this trip, but other travel companions from Marylhurst ran into some more serious issues.  My low point was getting dropped off by a Roman taxi on the wrong side of the Tiber (I think).  Even with a map and iPhone, I managed to get completely disoriented and ended-up wandering up and down the sides of the Tiber for hours until I could establish my bearings--and get a new taxi.  Another time, I left a gathering late at night with a very low iPhone battery.  Google Maps is hard enough to follow in the United States, but in Europe one must at times disregard the voice directions and pay more attention to the directional arrows; the streets aren't as standard in direction or size as found in the states.  So, imagine a thunderstorm starting at about this time with my iPhone almost out of juice.  Almost half my turns seemed to be in error, and I kept having to retrace my steps.  At one point, Google Maps advised me to turn into a dark and narrow alley that seemed like a particularly bad idea; I kept plodding ahead in the rain.  I finally made my Roman apartment, but I was soaked to the bone, and the phone was almost dead.  All in all, though, the good experiences outweighed the bad ones like this, and we all managed to get along through the end of the journey.   

I surprised even myself with my photos.  In the end, I returned with more than 5,000 photos and videos from my Canon--more with the iPhone.  After deleting a couple hundred poor photos, I flagged my favorites, then uploaded those to (public) albums on Facebook.  As I do with all my photography, all the photos--the great and not so great--are in the process of being uploaded to Flickr.  (This is my photograph backup measure with most photos identified as public, except for family pictures, but restrictions placed on the ability of the photos to be downloaded without permission.)

So, here's where you can find photos online.  I'm also planning an old fashioned slide show event for friends and family.  Contact me, if interested!

Flickr  (more photos coming)

Facebook (London)

Facebook (Rome)

Bigstock (in future)

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Nothing Like a Picture

I'm trying to do my first blog post via iPhone today.   While traveler nerves and feet (walked almost 80 miles since September 1st) may both be getting worn down, nearly one more exciting week of Italian travels remain.  To convey the briefest sense of our journey, I'm sharing two photo collages.  Hope you like them!

Update: Blogger won't let me add the right photos using either iPhone or iPad.  I'll update this when I return to Oregon.

Sunday, August 27, 2017


Depart for London: August 31
Arrive in London: September 1
Depart for Rome: September 7
Arrive in Rome: September 7
Returning Home: September 18

     The trip is starting to feel real now. I guess it had better, as I'm leaving for London in just a few days! This is a simple blog post, but it may contain helpful or interesting information relating to my upcoming journey for friends and family who want to follow along a bit on the adventure.

     It's possible I will be updating this blog as I go, but this is largely dependent upon available free time and an internet connection.  At the very least, I will stay publicly connected using social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and possibly Pinterest.  (Feel free to connect!)  On social media, also keep an eye out for my photography identified with one of the following hashtags: #KarlsLondon and #KarlsRome.



Click for Live Cam

Click for Live Cam  (Savoy Place)



Click for Live Cam (Trevi Fountain)

Click for Live Cam with Audio (Coliseum)

Click for Live Cam (Vatican City)

Click for Live Camera (Basilica of Saint Francis)


Courtesy "National Geographic"

Courtesy "National Geographic"

* Looking for an excellent book on Saint Francis?  Read Saint Francis of Assisi by G.K. Chesterton!

Sunday, August 20, 2017

London/Rome Study Abroad Goals & Expectations

     In just over a week now, I'll be leaving the USA for London along with a group of fellow student travelers from Marylhurst University. I look forward with great anticipation to seeing the sights of two of the truly great cities of the world. As I wrote recently about making this journey, the focus is really upon learning and connecting the dots regarding the cultural and physical context of some of the world's greatest art and literature. I look forward to visiting the libraries and museums of London and Rome, and I am particularly excited for the opportunity to spend hours upon hours at the Vatican. The Globe Theater is also on the itinerary, and I am confident that the play will be amazing. For a guy whose only out of country travel has been limited to Canada, I'm confident this will be an enriching experience for all of us student travelers.

     I selected the image above from Google Earth, because it's illustrative of how perspective influences our understanding of places.  This image may evoke a welcoming environment, but it is actually North Africa.  The shape and feel of places change as we grow nearer and assumptions are slowly replaced with familiarity.  It's my sincere hope that the upcoming trip will be illuminating in this regard for all of us travelers.

     I decided to add that I think I'm most looking forward to London.  The language barrier for Italy makes me a bit uncomfortable.  Of course, being uncomfortable is not necessarily a  bad thing.  Looking forward to what may come!

Experiencing Anthony Doerr's "Four Seasons in Rome"

     I have really enjoyed the opportunity to read Anthony Doerr's Four Seasons in Rome this term.  If Robert Hughes' book on Rome is seen as something of an objective analysis of Roman history and culture, Doerr's book is a much more subjective reading experience.  It's instantly engaging and welcoming to the reader, creating a rich sense of place with a narrative that feels often like poetry.  There is no sense of anything other than an honest account of the Doerr's family experiences in Rome: no underlying cynicism or inflated sense of ego to get between the reader and the text.  The author's gentle attitude is often expressing a profound sense of wonder not only of Rome itself, but, I would argue, his lovely family seen through the lens of Rome and the Roman people.  

     One of my favorite passages is the following excerpt concerning his son; it really captures the purity of personal experience and thought conveyed within these pages.

Swaddled in his Moses basket, wires trailing out the bottom, his monitor flashing green, green, green, his entire four-pound body motionless except his eyelids, it seemed he understood everything I was working so hard to understand: his mother's love, his brother's ceaseless crying; he was already forgiving me for my shortcomings as a father; he was the distillation of a dozen generations, my grandpa's grandpa's grandpa, all stripped into a single flame and stowed still-burning into the thin slip of his ribs.  I'd hold him at the window and he'd stare out into the night, blue tributaries of veins pulsing in his neck, his big eyelids slipping down now and then, and it would feel as if tethers were falling away, and the two of us were gently rising, through the glass, through the trees, through interweaving layers of atmosphere, into whatever was beyond the sky.

     One aspect of the book that I particularly appreciate is the author's emphasis of understanding a place through the eyes of its people.  He's not a simple tourist or traveller, he's experiencing Rome through the act of truly living there: mingling in the markets, strolling the ancient streets, speaking--or attempting to speak--with its residents, and, in short, truly living in the place.  I know my upcoming visit will be but a fraction of the length of his, but I hope I may leave Rome with a much greater sense of what this city is all about when my time comes to head home.  Like Doerr, I don't see most of this knowledge coming from being a tourist per se, but as something along the lines of a (very) short-term resident.