Personal Pilgrimages

When you think of pilgrims in Rome, you think of devout Catholics in awe as they approach the seat of the Church, St. Peter’s Basilica. But the city is full of people on personal pilgrimages of all kinds. Whenever I’m in Rome, I try to visit as many churches and museums as possible that contain paintings by my favorite 15th-century artist, Pinturicchio. Other visitors are on quests to see as much art as they can by Michelangelo or Caravaggio or Bernini—or by some painter or sculptor or architect I’ve never heard of whom they’ve studied for years.

Bernini’s statue of Apollo pursing Daphne, who changes into an oak tree
Caravaggio’s painting of Madonna and the pilgrims

Rome is more than just art, of course. There are thousands of years of history here. Some visitors make a beeline for sites associated with a favorite historical figure (Julius Caesar or the Borgias or Garibaldi) or for places portrayed in beloved novels or films (such as the Trevi Fountain). Poetry lovers pay homage at the house where Keats died or seek out markers showing where Goethe wrote his Roman poems.

Today, I went to a museum (Palazzo Massimo alle Terme) to gaze at wall paintings that adorned a villa belonging to Empress Livia—a key figure in Robert Graves’s historical novel “I, Claudius” and the BBC TV adaptation that captivated me when I was in high school.

Pilgrims at the holy stairs near San Giovanni in Laterano

Pieces of ancient Roman imperial purple porphyry used in the floor of a 12th-century church

Many pilgrimages in Rome are the spiritual kind. You see priests and nuns and monks from all over the world in this city. Besides visiting the Vatican, some of them ascend on their knees the modern steps that cover the stairs Christ supposedly climbed on his way to be tried by Pontius Pilate (which were brought to Rome in the 4th century). They can also seek out the churches founded by their order or dedicated to their patron saint.

Think what it must mean to a Jesuit to pray at the tomb of Ignatius Loyola, the 16th-century founder of that order. (I visited his tomb in pursuit of another of my Roman passions: rich inlays of polished stone, particularly imperial purple porphyry, a precious and rare substance.)

When I’m surrounded by throngs of tourists in Rome, I like to think about how many of the people rushing past me are on a personal quest to visit something that has special meaning for them. In this amazingly rich and multilayered city, every nook and cranny is important to someone.


  1. When I was in Rome I would have loved traveling with you on one of your journeys. I would have learned and appreciated Rome even more than I did. So I am looking at every picture and reading every word, because you are both so good at what you do and making so clear the memories…love…

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