Rome Revives Pagan Past with Solstice Festival

A summer-solstice festival on the Tiber River in Rome revived the spirit of the city's ancient, pagan past. The dusk-to-dawn celebration included a sound-and-light show created by Italian and American composers and artists.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.

Earlier in the program, we heard from some wind-watchers. Sun-watchers in the northern hemisphere noted the summer solstice this past week, the day the sun makes its highest path across the sky, the longest day of the year.

In Rome, there was a dusk-to-dawn celebration on the Tiber River. Italian and American composers and artists created a sound-and-light show that revived the spirit of the city's ancient pagan past. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli was there and sent us this audio postcard.

(Soundbite of music)

SYLVIA POGGIOLI reporting:

On the shortest night of the year, hundreds of Romans descended long marble steps leading to a stretch of the left bank of what the ancients called Tiber Flavus, the Blonde Tiber.

The title of the event was Shadows from the Realm of Wolves. Project creator Kristin Jones explains it's a homage to the founding myth of the city of Rome. She describes an animation by artist Maureen Selwood projected on the high ramparts of the other bank, where a large she-wolf is jumping into the water.

Ms. KRISTIN JONES (Festival Creator): And then she sees the little twins, and they're falling in, and then she collects them and they grab onto her breasts, and she pulls them out of the water, and then there she is. She carries them to shore. It's a little Romulus and Remus.

POGGIOLI: The legendary founders of Rome, rescued and nursed by a she-wolf.

(Soundbite of wolf howl)

POGGIOLI: Carefully lined along the edge of the two banks were nearly 3,000 torches, their flickering flames reflected and multiplied in the water. There were even a few torches floating downstream, reminiscent of the water and fire rituals practiced on this very river by followers of Dionysian cults in ancient Rome.

Christian Jones says her goal is to reawaken awareness of the river and to highlight the importance of nature in an urban setting by creating a unique, environmental soundscape.

Ms. JONES: It's a one-night-only thing, and it's really - it's about this sort of instance in the eternity of it all, and there's no more powerfully evocative place in the world, for me, than Rome, because it's where so much of what we know begins.

POGGIOLI: In antiquity, Tiber bridges were made of wood so as not to violate a waterway the Romans considered sacred. But over the centuries, the citizens lost their link to the river, and decades of neglect left the banks covered with mounds of mud and weeds. One long-time American resident of Rome is composer Alvin Curran, whose favorite concert hall is the outdoors. He hopes the solstice event will revive use of the river.

Mr. ALVIN CURRAN (Composer): The importance of the river, the memory of the river, the myth of the river, and I think that it's gonna happen, actually. And it's a great thing because there's something about the Tiber that's bigger than all of us.

(Soundbite of music)

POGGIOLI: Alvin Curran's composition for this event is called Romulus and Remus make a Ruckus, which combines wolf howls with sounds from another distant waterway, foghorns from a ship in Boston Harbor.

Mr. CURRAN: The horns are those famous horns which go baaaaah-ahhhhh.

(Soundbite of foghorns)

POGGIOLI: Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.

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