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Rome Diaries - Week 123

June 25th, 2011

Outside my window the chestnut growers’ union is demonstrating for subsidies, just ahead of the fall harvest. Perhaps they will threaten to dump the crop if they don’t get what they want. Chestnut-loving Italians would be thrown into a panic! Later in the morning, I make my way to a rarely-opened catacomb supervised by the Vatican. It was discovered during the post-World War II building boom. A group of retired professors and interested amateurs wait patiently in front of a nondescript office building for our guide who has just completed her PhD thesis on Thekla, a saint of the 2nd century. Once we descend to a chamber holding ancient family columbaria, our expert informs us, “There are two Theklas, one is from Rome and the other is from Syria. We are not sure who is buried here.” Clearly we are in the realm of academia. After passing 3rd century pagan tombs of the upper class and a large meeting room that may or may not have religious significance, we come to a series of galleries with tufa niches and excavated pits. The niches were for the middle class while the pits held the bodies of the poor. The bodies of the lower class are layered between broken roof tiles that were found on site and reused by the builders of catacombs. Directed up an inclined corridor, we come to Christian burials of the 6th century. The area was accessed not from the ancient entrance, but from a nearby hole in the ceiling. Here the cult of Saint Tekla was celebrated, amid frescoes of the Raising of Lazarus, Daniel in the Lions’ Den and the Good Shepherd. In 2010, Vatican archaeologists used a laser tool to uncover the ceiling frescoes of an inner chamber: Peter and his brother Andrew, as well as a rabbinical-looking Paul and a chubby John the Evangelist. One wall displays the abundant fruit, birds and angels of hoped for Paradise. We return the way we came. When I ask our guide about a fresco of two figures who appear to be having a vision, she assures me it has to do with fortune-telling. Back on the street, I realize I am disappointed in the haphazard history of Saint Tekla’s catacomb – a few colorful legends would have rounded out the experience, but this is a pilgrim’s wish.

June 29th, 2011

At the reunification of Italy (1870), the five hundred year-old tradition of celebratory fireworks at Castel Sant'Angelo ended. Sixtus IV, credited with ushering the Renaissance into Rome, began the spectacles in 1471. From then on, papal elections, Easter and the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul (which is today) had always been marked by this brilliant entertainment. The best of these shows came early when Michelangelo and Bernini were brought in to create fleeting, theatrical masterpieces, controlling everything from the design of the Roman candles to the sequence of fire fountains and color effects. Charles Dickens visited Rome in the 1840’s, and wrote about the Easter fireworks in “Pictures from Italy” (1846):

On Easter Monday there was a great display of fireworks from the Castle of St. Angelo. We hired a room in an opposite house, and made our way, to our places, in good time, through a dense mob of people choking up the square in front, and all the avenues leading to it; and so loading the bridge by which the castle is approached, that it seemed ready to sink into the rapid Tiber below. There are statues on this bridge (execrable works), and, among them, great vessels full of burning tar were placed: glaring strangely on the faces of the crowd, and not less strangely on the stone counterfeits above them. In half an hour afterwards, the immense concourse had dispersed; the moon was looking calmly down upon her wrinkled image in the river; and half - a - dozen men and boys with bits of lighted candle in their hands: moving here and there, in search of anything worth having, that might have been dropped in the press: had the whole scene to themselves.

Mr. Dickens seems not his cheerful self in describing this “picture.” In 2008 the City of Rome devised an historically-based version of the pyrotechnics for summer tourists. This evening the crowd mixes unhappily with the car traffic causing hours of gridlock – and the view of the castle is blocked by trees. A woman in front of me slips down a flight of marble stairs to the Tiber embankment and I see that a few hundred people have positioned themselves for a perfect view of the castle from beneath the bridge. I join them and wonder if perhaps Pope Benedict, who celebrates the 60th anniversary of his ordination today, isn’t watching too.

Rome Diaries - Week 123
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