I happened on this gem of Latin poetry in Rome in the Chiesa di Santa Maria del Populo, with the help of Tyler Lansford’s book, The Latin Inscriptions of Rome. (Multas gratias tibi ago! Sorry about misreading your name in the video.) It would have been painfully easy to accidentally overlook this inscription if I were not looking for it already.
My first encounter with the Eternal City was through a ten-day Latin class here, which I participated in last year. Our professors guided us through inscriptions throughout the city, from pilgrim tombs to palace terraces. They showed us why this place is rightly dubbed “eternal”: it is always speaking.
Yes, Rome can seem a mute pile of incomprehensible ruins, maybe softened by nostalgia’s rose colored glasses (and at the end of the day are we really content with this view?). But if you look and listen closer (and perhaps borrow a Latin dictionary) Rome begins speaking with you: caesars, saints, polemics, popes, even the obelisks themselves. And what she says often runs deeper than just another species of historical artifact. What these Rovere brothers, buried here in the same tomb, want to tell us is an excellent example- the tenderness and concord that unites them cannot be communicated through a historical point on a timeline, but only through the form of this poem and its timeless beauty .
1. The epitaph reads, in four lines of hendecasyllables:
CONCORDES ANIMOS PIASQ(UE) MENTES /
UT DICAS LICET UNICAM FUISSE /
COMMISTI CINERES SEQUENTUR ET SE /
CREDI CORPORIS UNIUS IUVABIT /
(Just as you could say that our harmonious souls and faithful minds were one, so our commingled ashes follow in the same way, and it will please us that they are believed to be of one body.)
2. SEQUENTUR is properly translated in the future. I read it here in the present.
4. The Madonna in her self-named church is carved above the tomb, watching over the brothers.
5. The obelisk of Ramses II seen in the beginning of the video is one of the speaking obelisks, with fascinating and conflicting (or you could say, “developing”) voices. One side bears Caesar Augustus’s inscription gifting the obelisk to the sun, another bears Pope Sixtus V’s inscription berating these pagan origins, and the last side, appropriating and transforming its predecessors, has the obelisk speaking for itself, declaring that it rises “More august… and joyous, before the sacred shrine [Santa Maria del Populo] of her from whose virgin womb during the return of Augustus arose, the Sun of Righteousness” (Lansford, 345). Perhaps a video on that if I’m ever fortunate enough to be back in the Eternal City.