Protestants are drawn to Rome, though we define ourselves against it. Strictly speaking, we do not go there on pilgrimage. Yet we have always visited Rome, at once attracted and repulsed.
It began in 1510, when Martin Luther took the trip that triggered the Reformation. “Rome, once the holiest city, [is] now the worst. Let me get out of this terrible dungeon,” he wrote. For Protestants on the Grand Tour in the eighteenth century, Rome was an object of either reverence or wariness. It was capable of seducing young aristocrats from Northern Europe into “priestcraft” and “autocracy.” Reflecting on his own time in Italy, Henry Adams later wrote that Rome “was seductive beyond resistance.”
Protestants recoil from the idea that any act of ours can have salvific value or effect. So we look askance at those who get on their knees to climb the Scala Sancta—the marble staircase that Jesus is believed to have ascended during his Passion.
Protestants take Rome’s Catholic identity seriously. That cannot be said of everyone. In 2015, a Piazza Martin Lutero was officially added to the Oppian Hill, adjacent to the Colosseum. Its construction was “in line with the path of dialogue started with the ecumenical council,” according to the Vatican press office. Such gestures, however well intended, cannot change the fact that Rome remains a Catholic city. It will inspire ambivalence in the Protestant pilgrim as long as it and Protestantism endure.
Modern travelogues express, in different registers, the complexity of Protestant reactions to Rome. John Henry Newman was still an Anglican when he visited Italy in 1833, and his letters from Rome are almost comically equivocal. In one, Rome “is the first of cities, and . . . all I ever saw are but as dust (even dear Oxford inclusive) compared with its majesty and glory.” In another letter, Newman apostrophizes Rome in verse: “How shall I name thee, Light of the wide West, / Or heinous error-seat[?]” The common people of Rome were “heathens, certainly.” And if there were individual examples of piety in the Roman churches, “still, as a system, the corrupt religion—and it is very corrupt—must receive severe inflictions and I fear I must look upon Rome, as a city, still under a curse.” And yet: “What a delightful soothing place this is!” Another letter concludes, “Oh that Rome were not Rome,” encapsulating the love-and-loathing dynamic.
If Newman struggled to reconcile Rome’s majesty with its corruption, Mark Twain, visiting about thirty years later, struggled to reconcile his own impulses of reverence and skepticism. Twain’s impressions, published as The Innocents Abroad (1869), have an enduring resonance for American Protestants. In the best passages, Twain seeks to combine tourism with piety.
He failed in the attempt. At the Mamertine Prison, Twain “stood reverently” at the site where St. Peter was jailed shortly before his execution. “But when they showed us the print of Peter’s face in the hard stone of the prison wall and said he made that by falling up against it, we doubted.” The but is an uncomfortable reminder of the modern tourist’s instinct to separate “tradition” from “history.” This can easily become a false dichotomy, as tour guides constantly air-quote “tradition,” placing it against some scientific, historical consensus dating to the Enlightenment at the earliest. The tension is repeated when Twain encounters the marble footprints of Christ, which had originally been housed in the Church of St. Mary in Palmis—the famous “Quo Vadis” chiesa on the Appian Way. These footprints (which his guide attributes to Peter) “were those of a man ten or twelve feet high. The discrepancy confirmed our unbelief.”
In a strange environment, faced with something alien, we might label it “exotic”—a category that allows us to create a safe distance, to prevent the foreign from occasioning self-reflection. The trouble with Rome is that it contains too much that is familiar to be dismissed as altogether foreign. The city’s history puts it in the very small class of places in which a large portion of the world’s population can sense some sort of heritage.
Years ago, my mother invited me to spend Easter in Rome. I’ve tried to make it back every year since, but I was not initially eager to go. In fact, I had long avoided the city. I remember, on that first visit to Italy, driving past highway signs to Rome and feeling a sense of relief that I was staying in Tuscany, which is about as culturally challenging for an American as Napa Valley or the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Rome, in contrast, is as likely to intimidate as to charm. Adams and Twain were both overawed at times. Twain wondered what more there was to say about the place. Adams writes that “every one who had either head or heart” must at some point take up the matter of Rome. Today, there is a U.S. publishing niche based on the “Are We Rome?” question. To Adams, who was haunted by the analogy, it would come as no surprise. “Substitute the word America for the word Rome,” he wrote, “and the question became personal.”
I owe to my mother not only my first Roman tour, but my familiarity with the travel guidance of the city’s great poet, Horace: “They change their clime, not their mind, who rush across the sea.” In one of his odes, Horace asks, “What expatriate has ever succeeded in escaping from himself?” I’d like to think I’m more aware of the fact that I bring myself to Rome than I was on my first visit. Yet I know that the city continues to challenge me.
My students have helped me understand this. On a recent trip, at a visit to the Quo Vadis church, they were more comfortable than Twain holding faith and reason in tension. They were likelier to laugh at the pretensions of pedants than at the traditions of the common people. Several of the students had traveled abroad before; some had visited the Holy Land, which, like Rome, forces most American visitors to struggle with scenery and the spirit, Enlightenment certitudes and genuine piety. Twain, of course, was not without self-awareness. He implicates himself in the title of his book, The Innocents Abroad. We are “innocents” when we leave home—not guiltless persons, but naifs.
What drew my students to Rome? Surely, it was a combination of factors, many of which continue to motivate my journey. These range from pragmatic or professional necessity to casual curiosity. I suspect that underneath these obvious reasons lies a hunger for stability.
When I visit Rome, I am more a tourist than a pilgrim. Yet I’m drawn to the Tiber for the same reason many Protestants have been. Rome represents rootedness. Henry Adams was onto this: “Without her, the Western world was pointless and fragmentary; she gave heart and unity to it all.” The permanence that struck Adams in 1860 remains today. Some of us, of any age, suspect and hope that for all its challenges, Rome can be an antidote to fragmentation.
Joshua Kinlaw is assistant professor of history and humanities at The King’s College.