‘Rome is Gay’

That’s what the posters are saying.

And lest you think they just mean happy-go-lucky, the image on the broadsheet shows two men kissing. It’s a striking image in a city where the flirtatious joie de vivre is decidedly heterosexual. But there it is. Rome is gay.

The posters were advertising a Gay Pride parade that took place in the afternoon on July 3. I’m told that it’s become something of an event in the past several years, and my friends urged me to go at all costs (though, as fortune would have it, I was on a EuroStar speeding north to Venice by the time it started).

The parade took place near a famous Roman landmark, “the Pyramid,” which was built by a wealthy Roman senator named Gaius Cestius Epulo as his own funerary monument (just a decade or two before Jesus was born in a far-away Roman province), in an age when Egyptiana was all the rage in some parts of Rome.

The city was always free-wheeling and multicultural, but this monument is still unusual. No one else chose to commemorate their crossing over to eternity in this way.

In the third century, the Emperor Aurelius, decidedly less confident of his ability to defend his city’s borders, and with the barbarians soon to be knocking at the gates, commissioned new walls that were destined to define the final circuit of a city that may be eternal, but was not destined to be an imperial capitol for much longer.

The Aurelian Walls took advantage of the size of the Pyramid and simply built it into the new defensive perimeter. So what was once an image of Egyptian aspirations to divinity became an image of melancholy Roman mortality, which then was reimagined yet again as a bulwark against imperial decadence.

Not much later, some Christians succeeded in making their religion the exclusive religion of the Roman state. And then the barbarians came.

Fifteen hundred years later still, when European travelers (from England, Germany and elsewhere) made Rome the main stop on their “Grand Tour,” a new problem emerged in this Christian imperial center, now dominated by the Vatican: what to do when many of them died, and died outside of the Catholic faith? There was quite literally nowhere to bury these unsettling, Protestant and Eastern Orthodox corpses. So a new, Acattolica (non-Catholic) cemetery was built.

At the Pyramid.

It’s one of the most peaceful spots in Rome today, famous in part for the number of famous poets and visual artists who have found their final rest here. Keats is buried here; so is Shelley. Both men are buried next to close male companions of the road who poignantly elected to spend their eternities very far from home, but in the material proximity of their friends’ earthly remains. It is a deeply touching image, this fond male intimacy of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It’s also very hard to read.

A marvelous photographic exhibit depicting similarly uninterpretable male intimacy was in San Francisco a few years ago. It was entitled Dear Friends, and a video essay by Richard Rodriguez walks the viewer brilliantly through the impossibility of knowing now how men one hundred and fifty years ago imagined themselves so touched by their closest friends.

They lived before the Freudian revolution, you see.

So they didn’t think of sexuality, just sex. And they presumably had not yet laded upon one of the singular and definitive borders of the twentieth century: the boundary that defines one’s “sexual identity” strictly in terms of the gender of one’s sexual object choice.

It’s an awfully ugly way of putting such a passionate and personal matter, but once you put it that way, you can see how arbitrary and almost funny it is.

Which brings us back to the Pyramid, and the overwhelming palimpsest that is a city like Rome, with its super-saturation of history.

Things do not stand still or stay static. Things change. An Egyptian thing or a Gretomb may become a guard tower which may end up guarding a cemetery all over again.

And tomorrow that same Pyramid will become the central symbol and staging area for an ancient-style Roman triumph celebrating a very modern kind of gay pride.

And one day after that, some thousands of miles away, citizens in the United States celebrated something else with parades: their independence, their freedom from undue oppression and interference in their personal affairs.

It can be overwhelming, this palimpsestic historical panoply, this august parade of dead heroes.

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