June 10th, 2010
Sutri, from the earliest times, was a strategic spot. Its walls are bolstered by sheer cliffs of volcanic stone and the narrow butte from which it rises lends to the town the aspect of a ship purposefully sailing in an ocean of wooded hills. Far below, the Via Cassia follows its ancient course, now a veritable country road; high-speed traffic has moved elsewhere. Hidden on the other side of Via Cassia is a Roman ampitheater carved out of a massive block of tufa stone. It is an intimate space compared to Rome’s Coliseum, but an oval shape and symmetrical entrances convey strength and dignity. As I walk through the cave-like entrance passage and out into the center, I’m encircled by dark rock seating for a few thousand, weeds and lichen softening the effect. An attendant tells me that, at 11 AM, she will open the mithraeum, a place of worship carved from the same tufa formation. I cross back to the town, following the designs stenciled onto the cobblestone streets for the recent Corpus Christi procession. The route winds past the Cathedral and into tiny neighborhoods where some additional decorations still hang from balconies. As I look up at one house, I can hear the theme music to Don Matteo, the popular Italian detective series about a priest who lives in Gubbio. This is perfect lunchtime TV for someone living in another, equally “tourist-ready,” hilltown. Promptly at 11 AM, the attendant comes to a door set into the rockface a few hundred years from the ampitheater. Inside is a large Etruscan tomb made over into mithraeum which was, in turn frescoed with multiple images of Mary holding the infant Jesus and used as a church since medieval times. The stone couches, used for reclining during the sacred meal of Mithras, were kept as stone benches for worshippers at the Mass. A delightful fresco of the Holy Family in a cave-like stable takes the place of honor behind the altar and a bas-relief image of Saint Michael the Archangel adds the right note of celestial protection. He attends the sanctuary from a floating position on the ceiling. Nearby, a path to the top of the tufa formation leads to an 18th century church and villa and a grove of live oaks. Looming behind the church, lies the ruins of a 13th century fortress, fancifully called “Charlemagne’s Castle” in hopes that Charlemagne’s nephew, the chivalrous Roland, might have been born here. Far from the fast roads, anything seems possible in Sutri.
June 20th, 2010
A rare, free Sunday morning allows me to drop into the Church of Saint Isidore (1622). It commands a knoll near the Pincian Hill, just below the bustling restaurtants of Via Veneto and has been tantalizingly closed behind its tall garden gates every time I pass. Begun by the Spanish Franciscans to celebrate the canonization of Saint Isidore, the simple day laborer who was named patron saint of Madrid, it soon became burdened with debt. But the charming, well-connected and scholarly friar Luke Wadding (from Waterford, but teaching in Salamanca) was asked to manage the project and turn it into Rome’s Irish College. Catholics, at the time, were streaming into Rome from the British Isles to escape the Tudor persecutions. Friar Luke was already in Rome, employed by Philip III of Spain as his official theologian in a bid to obtain an authoritative definition of the Immaculate Conception, especially important in an era when politics and religion were sparring constantly. Now the scholar began the work of raising awareness of Ireland in Rome. He did this, first, by making his new Irish College a center for the study of John Duns Scotus, a medieval Franciscan theologian who made the scriptural case for Mary’s Immaculate Conception; Friar Luke also promoted the cause of the Irish with his talent for making influential friends and getting donations from popes, cardinals and heads of state. Many in Rome gave him full credit for elevating Saint Patrick’s feast day to a celebration for the universal Church. The dynamic spirit of the founder of the Irish College is still here, not just in the recently restored church, but in an odd grave situated in the garden directly in front of Saint Isidore’s. To the casual observer, it seems the typical oblong marble affair, complete with a crucifix positioned in the middle. But, upon inspection, this outdoor installation is actually three things (and none of them a grave): a black granite likeness of a Philips flat-screen TV, the front of a Bomann dishwasher and the front of Gorenje clothes washer, both in white marble. A friend had alerted me to this stealth sculpture. Space for it was granted because the request came from the college’s next door neighbor, the Swiss Institute, a cultural organization. If Friar Luke were still here, he’d probably be hosting a reception for the artist.