Rome, St Patrick’s Day
Weighing up the most suitable footwear for our Roman walk, I suspect my travelling shoes could decide my path, or at least my mood. Mindful of the gospel according to Marilyn Monroe – “give a girl the right shoes, and she can conquer the world” - I choose carefully.
Settling on the best packaging for feet is a statement of intent, not only for film stars, but for tourists and cardinals too. Heels for limos, walking shoes for cities, handmade loafers for the pontiff. The most endearing rumour about Pope Francis hints that his friends in Argentina dispatched him to Rome with new shoes to replace his shabby old pair.
The city today is a perfect storm of activity — Pope Francis’ first Sunday Angelus and the Rome Marathon. It’s also Saint Patrick’s Day, and Rome is a heaving gathering of feet.
Pilgrims walk with curious tourists, bound for St Peter’s and the Angelus. Around 150,000 pairs of feet march on Vatican City. This surging congregation is aiming for an audience with the new Pope, who’s already made the symbolic gesture to keep his own shoes. Tradition encourages the new Bishop of Rome to shuffle into handmade red loafers, but instead Francis has chosen to earth himself in practical, inky brogues.
Not all the feet in Rome point in the same direction. A breakaway crowd emerges alongside the pilgrims. Driving up our walking pace, runners’ feet pound the cobbles in the Marathon.
We catch up with the athletes in Piazza Navona, circling Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers, designed for Pope Innocent X. Ancient river gods are barefoot, frozen in action. Their supersized feet hint at unearthly muscle. Silver foil capes, draped on passing runners’ shoulders, create superhero silhouettes on the paving.
The God of the Rio de la Plata sits on a pile of coins, forcing the symbolic riches of the Americas to earth. More than 350 years since Bernini’s creation, the same continent just supplied the first Latin American Pope. The athletic talent on display is overwhelmingly imported from elsewhere – the top twelve finishers in the marathon are African.
A dove tops Bernini’s fountain, symbolising the Papacy and Innocent X’s family. The bird points heavenwards to the focal point where the earth’s four rivers meet.
Today Rome surges towards a new Pope who seems to have his feet firmly on the ground. Francis’ frugal “poor Church for the poor” points to a journey that is harder on the soles of the feet than on the knees.
The main attraction and the minor players in Rome today chose their footwear carefully. Pilgrims, athletes and tourists all faced the same dilemma as the Pope. Practical decisions, about feet, reveal how life is, and how we want it to be. You can select the shoes that fit the path you’re on right now, or choose in hope of where you want to go.
Thoreau’s thoughts apply equally to all – “Heaven is under our feet, as well as over our heads.” One day’s walk round a spiritual city reveals what roots us all to the ground.
First published in The Daily Telegraph
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