Early in 2020, before the pandemic, I told a former colleague that I’d just gotten back from spending a few weeks in Rome over Christmas. He shot back, “And you’re still a Catholic? It’s a miracle.” This was my first trip to Rome, and I’ve never fallen for a city so hopelessly and so quickly. But it was impossible not to be struck by all the reminders of the Church’s embrace of worldly power and riches. And when I told an old friend of mine, a gay Catholic with perhaps the most jaundiced view of the Church of anyone I’ve ever met, where I was spending the holidays, he snapped that it was only after seeing Rome that he knew why the Reformation had to happen, and why the severity and piety of Spanish Catholicism was the heart of the Counter-Reformation. I understood what he meant.
Similar thoughts crossed my mind during an afternoon at the Galleria Borghese, the spectacular collection of art housed in what was once the Villa Borghese Pinciana. It was started by Scipione Borghese—that is, Cardinal Borghese, nephew of Pope Paul V. He was his uncle’s secretary, and used that position to amass a fortune. If that raises doubts about his virtue, there’s no doubt that his patronage of Caravaggio and Bernini speaks well of his taste. Still, I couldn’t help but feel the occasional pang of shame as I walked through room after room of stunning paintings and sculptures bought with the toil of so many poor Catholics.
The memories of such art, and the memories of beautiful churches, ancient ruins, and more, remain fresh with me. Now, though, when I look back at my time in Rome it’s transformed by the coronavirus. I wistfully recall being packed into tiny restaurants, or huddling with a friend at a bar, or walking shoulder to shoulder, maskless, down the city’s narrow streets. I’m haunted by how often I heard that it was a brutal flu season in Rome, and I wonder what made me sick my last few days there—a cough drier than any I’ve ever had, one I couldn’t shake, that occasionally left me lightheaded and taking chills. Conversations and sensations have taken on new meaning since I read that epidemiologists now believe the virus was in Italy as early as the beginning of last December.