Angels in the Ghetto
On 2 April 2005, Pope Jean Paul II died and massive crowds began forming in Rome for the funeral, set for 8 April. I made plans to travel to Rome to photograph the events surrounding this event. In his 27 years as pontiff, John Paul II distinguished himself in numerous areas. An engaged politician, he traveled extensively. He spoke out against Apartheid in South Africa, supported the Solidarity movement in Poland and contributed to the end of communism across Eastern Europe. The first pope to go to Israel, he sought dialogue between religions.
Because the authorities were diverting many flights from Rome, I left early Thursday morning to catch the 12-hour train from Paris. By chance, I was seated with Jean-Michel Turpin, a freelance photographer on assignment for Figaro Magazine. Jean-Michel had worked for the photo agency Gamma for 15 years, covering major news stories as well as working on long-term photo essays and documentary projects. He managed to cover stories that interested him, not running off to every conflict on the globe, but going to examine some situations that resonated with him and also had geopolitical significance. We spoke about the universal aspect of photography, being able to communicate directly with people of all languages, without the need of translator. On the train, Jean-Michel was collaborating with a staff journalist from Le Figaro, talking with Catholics making the pilgrimage to the Vatican. Families were on their way to Saint Peter’s Square with their children, without hotel reservations, with backpacks and sleeping bags, planning to sleep in the street. Later I learned that Roman police blocked traffic from many streets in the city center, making it possible for hundreds of thousands of people to camp in the open air. I spoke with one couple who decided to make the pilgrimage after they heard the ringing of Le Gros Bourdon, the bell in Notre Dame cathedral. This enormous bell, weighing 13 tons, rang in August of 1944 when Paris was liberated from the Nazis, and it rang 83 times on Saturday night after the Pope’s death, once for each year of his life. The sound is low, grave, heavy; the vibrations can be felt throughout central Paris.
I arrived at Termini station and headed out with my camera. A screen was set up in front of the Colosseum, emitting Pope-glorifying images. Groups of people were lying in front of the screens in sleeping bags, planning to watch the funeral on CCTV the next morning at 10. City administrators had set up similar screens in 30 locations around Rome, in an attempt to diminish the sheer mass of people crushing into Saint Peter’s Square and the surrounding avenues.
The Tiber River separates the Vatican from central Rome, and I arrived at a police barricade on the Vittorio Emanuele Bridge. The carabinieri had stopped allowing pilgrims to cross, so they were lined up along the avenues in sleeping bags or sitting on mats, waiting. Rumors circulated about when the police would open the bridge again. I worked hard with my six Italian phrases and learned that we would be allowed to cross early in the morning. This bridge and the bridge to the East were blocked off, as were many streets in this area and so hundreds of people found a place to sit or sleep and wait until morning.
I headed west, and the Principe Amadeo Bridge was open. I crossed this bridge, walked back up to the Vatican side of the Vittorio Emanuele bridge, and continued on to the very end of the Via Della Conciliazione (VDC), the long avenue that leads directly to Saint Peter’s Square and the Basilica. A press platform was set up at the end of the VDC and the international press vans were parked nearby. Because the VDC was already full of people, the police closed it off to the pilgrims who continued arriving with knapsacks, flags, and sleeping bags in tow. They got as close as they could to the barrier, then sat down in piles, one on top of another. Nuns, rabbis, children… people camped wherever they could, even among the press vans and in the garden nearby. Photographers and TV news cameramen circulated among them, and I watched the scene. I moved into the crowd and prepared to wait out the night with them. A priest started singing “Emmanuel” in German, and the song continued in call and response, in Polish, in Latin, until most of the crowd was singing, waving flags, lighting candles. We sat like this for hours. A blind man stood with police on the other side of the barrier and sang “Ave Maria”.
I got three hours’ sleep and went back. I took the first bus to St. Peter’s square, but police stopped it; they closed all of central Rome to all vehicles except ambulances, police cars, and presidential cavalcades. I walked all the way down the Corso Vittorio Emanuele in a crowd of pilgrims. At about 7h30, I reached the Vittorio Emanuele Bridge, it was open, and I crossed it, immediately running into Jean-Michel, who was on his way to get press accreditation. I watched the teams of police prepare for the arrival of the world’s leaders, including Moshe Katsav, Jacques Chirac, Aleksander Kwasniewski, Mohammad Khatami, as well as Clinton, Bush and “Bushette,” as the French like to call him. I moved into the crowd on the Via Della Conciliazione, where people were plastered together, pushing toward the basilica. I, too, tried to walk towards the basilica, but the crowd was too dense, impossible to move through, so I moved farther down the VDC. The carabinieri had erected two metal barriers in the middle of the VDC, creating an opening for police, press, and emergency workers. Hanging out along the barrier, I watched the photographers, cameramen, and police hurrying up and down the open alley in the middle of the VDC, which stretched all the way to St. Peter’s square. At random, I struck up a conversation with a French couple who were being followed by a camera crew from Canal+, a French TV station featuring excellent documentaries and narrative films. The Canal+ crew had taken the train with them from Paris and lived with them in one of the shelters set up by the Catholic church, discussing why they had made the pilgrimage, their faith and views about Catholicism in the current world. After about 20 minutes, the Canal+ crew came over and the man I had been speaking with says, “Hey Bruno, here’s a young photographer without a press pass, can’t you let her jump the barrier with you guys?” So I did. I spoke with him about the project, then said thanks and started walking up the VDC through the police and EMS crews and journalists. The sun was up but diffuse. It was 9 o’clock. Heart a flood, I kept my eyes fixed on the dome of the Basilica di San Pietro and walked quickly for a few hundred yards. People were pressed against the barriers, looking exhausted and shell-shocked; a nun with her head in her hands, a man flying the flag of Lebanon… the gift of the sun on their faces. I made these photographs as I walked all the way up to the base of the square itself, when a cop told me I couldn’t go any further, but I could cross through an opening in the barrier to the right. At that moment, the police were allowing the waiting pilgrims into the square itself; they had been kept out all night. I walked with the pilgrims through the colonnade into the square. The funeral began, they carried the Pope’s casket into the centre of the church steps. The sun, intermittent clouds. The ceremony lasted three hours, you could tune into a radio station hear a live interpretation in your language, and CCTV screens were set up to either side of the basilica. At the end, when they carried the Pope’s casket out of the square, the crowd was overcome. I don’t think I have ever seen such unmasked emotion on such a large scale, profound sadness and celebration. There was no holding back. They forgot themselves in the moment of frenzy. There was nothing contrived about it.
I still have many questions about what I saw. The blurring boundaries of religion and government. It was hard to accept many things about this pope: his refusal to OK the use of condoms contributed to the spread of HIV, his rejection of gay people, women in the priesthood, marriage for priests. And so do those millions of pilgrims feel this way too?
I am back in Paris now, waiting to see if the frenzy of mourning and elegiac, glorifying articles in the French press will die down and maybe this weekend (when the weekly magazines come out) there will be some critique of his policies and the ways he was immovable.
On my last day in Rome, I wandered off into the rain and ended up in the old Jewish ghetto from the 30s and 40s. There was a sculpture in an arced enclave called Angels in the Ghetto by Goncalo Mabunda. I stared at it for a long time, standing in the rain. A clamor of winged creatures ascended into the sky.
Written 14 April 2005.