October 31st, 2010
The view from Monte Mario, the highest point in Rome, is what medieval pilgrims saw when the city first spread out before them. A roadside chapel commemorates Francis of Assisi’s arrival from Umbria, first coming as a confused ex-soldier and, later, as a humble beggar destined to save the Church from itself. In ancient times, this same path was the course for triumphal entries by generals returning with booty and captives; from here Julius Ceasar made his triumphant way to the Forum’s Via Sacra and offered his thanksgiving at the Temple of Jupiter Capitolinus. I make my way to this place today, Sunday, because it is so choked with traffic during the week that people regularly abandon buses and either walk to their destination or return home. Yesterday a friend told me she had been to visit a cloistered convent that contains a revered 6th Century icon of Mary; it can only be viewed by the public immediately after daily Mass. A second reason to visit this neighborhood is to get as close as possible to Arrigo Minerbi’s 35 foot bronze sculpture, Madonna Salus Populi Romani. It stands on an outcropping in front of the Don Orione Institute. The statue (erected in 1954) is a thank offering from the sculptor, who was Jewish, for the role the institution played in hiding him during the Nazi persecution. Last year the immense figure was toppled during a wind storm. The incident made news as the statue, carrying a title that confers health and safety to the Roman people, is much loved city landmark. Pope Benedict XVI came to rededicate the monument just last month. The Dominican convent is adjacent to the Cavaleri Hilton Hotel, a Modernist construction of brick and travertine that takes advantage of the view. I spend some time walking the landscaped “fitness trail” that snakes around the hotel, past (incongruously) prides of lions ready for a kill, partially concealed air conditioning units and a helicopter pad (for harried executives? heart attack victims? flightseeing?) The all-knowing concierge confirms that the great golden statue of the Madonna is a fifteen minute walk away. But before making that visit, I pay my respects, immediately after Mass, to the Madonna of San Sisto now known as Santa Maria del Rosario; it arrived in Rome soon after the banning of icons by the Byzantine Emperor Leo III in 730. The Virgin has large, almond-shaped eyes, a long nose and ruby lips; her cheeks are red. She has a look of both action and compassion which is emphasized by gem-encrusted golden gloves, a sign the image works miracles. I struggle to get an unobstructed view through the cloister’s protective grille. My encounter is fleeting. Soon the icon, which is attached to a turnstile, will be rotated back to face the nuns for the rest of the day. My efforts to find Madonna Salus Populi Romani on the grounds of the Don Orione Institute takes me past five or six fields filled with soccer-playing children, a flock of long-eared sheep grazing in an olive grove and, finally, a cul-de-sac of school science laboratories where, behind a locked gate, rises the golden Madonna. She has her back to me, but her hands like the hands of the miracle-working icon I just left, seem busy in a gesture that passes along a blessing from the high heaven to earth.
November 20th, 2010
During the “courtesy visits” to congratulate new cardinals, Bernini’s scala regia -- the monumental staircase which, by false perspective, pulls you into the public rooms of the Vatican palace – resembles nothing so much as a disgorgement of immigrants to Ellis Island. After ninety minutes of waiting by the Bronze Door, a crowd of Tyrol hated Germans, a congregation of men in Crusader tunics, sneakered tourists and assorted priests and nuns pushes through the narrow opening in a barrier and makes their way to the first Swiss Guard who shepherds his flock while an even earlier crowd swarms up the stairs to Sala Regia, the main salon for cardinals during a consistory. Established prelates and the curious just off the street mingle and jostle their way through ornate reception rooms, waiting on line to offer a newly-minted prince of the church their handshake, if time permits. I follow a few beaming American visitors down a back set of stairs that winds past two courtyards before leaving us at a turret that serves as headquarters for the Vatican Bank. “We had a great visit! Thanks so much,” they shout, passing a startled guard at Saint Anne’s Gate and forgetting they are not in Larchmont anymore.