From 2006 to 2011 Paulist Father Tom Holahan served as vice rector of the Paulist
church in Rome. During that time he had the opportunity to spend time exploring the
historic sites of Rome as well as the hidden ones. The blog features excerpts from this
travel diary. A new selection appears each week.
January 30th, 2007
Not a day goes by without scores of tourists snapping pictures of the Fountain of Moses on the eastern end of the Quirinal hill. It is a famously bad, 14-foot-high statue of Moses. The fountain itself was designed by the reputable Domenico Fontana, but the work of carving Moses fell to Prospero Antichi, known as Il Bresciano. He was primarily a modeler, that is, he created the wax models that a sculptor would use to guide him in carving the stone. This time, Bresciano, was given the stone-carving task himself. Unfortunately, he thought he could begin by going right to stone, as some sculptors, like Michelangelo, did. As the work progressed, his friends began having doubts about the proportions of the statue. Bresciano would have none of it. The fountain was dedicated about five years before the dwarfish statue was installed and when it was, the reaction was swift and clear—Bresciano’s Moses was a failure. The statue was lampooned in anonymous verse affixed to Pasquino, the ancient statue set up near Piazza Navona for tart public messages:
The fresh water is good and the fountain is beautiful;
with that monster above, however, it is no longer so.
Oh you, Sixtus, who keeps fast to your word,
Hang the new Michelangelo by his throat.
---- ---- ----
He looks with a grim eye
At the water that rushes to his feet,
At the damage that has been done to him,
By a sculptor who has lost his mind!
Writing in the mid-19th century, Nathaniel Hawthorne commented: “This statue was the death of its sculptor, who broke his heart on account of the ridicule it excited” (The French and Italian Notebooks). In fact, Breciano continued producing quality wax models for sculptors until the end of his life, but Hawthorne, Romantic writer that he was, could not resist this rumor about the artist, found in the guidebooks of his day. But the fountain itself was a success. Pope Sixtus V, whose given name was Felice Peretti, dubbed the water from his restored ancient aqueduct Acqua Felice and the fountain served as its celebratory terminus. Not only would Sixtus have water for his vast surrounding properties, but ordinary people would not have to walk far to fill their buckets and wash their clothes. The next pope (Paul V) built his own aqueduct from scratch, Acqua Paola, with the Scossa Cavalli fountain as its terminus. It was needed as, by the 17th century, only three of the eleven ancient watercourses had been restored to working order. In the 18th century ancient Aqua Virgo, renamed Acqua Vergine, would receive its triumphal fountain, the ultimate destination spot in Rome, Pope Clement XII’s Trevi.
February 1st, 2007
My aunt and her friend, both members of the American religious community, Sisters of St. Agnes, spend two hours at the saint’s tomb. Between them are almost a hundred years of dedication to Agnes, a 12 year-old martyr who lived over 1700 years ago. They are moved beyond words to be able to walk through the catacomb where her body lies buried and to pray in the church built to honor her a few centuries after her death. Rome holds thousands of such places which are “sacred to the memory” of a saint, an emperor, a deity. The head of St. Agnes lies in an utterly different place, Piazza Navona. While it was the place where she suffered martyrdom (beneath of the stands of Emperor Domitian’s Circus), Pope Innocent X used the piazza as a stage set for his tomb. He first renovated his family’s palace (Pamphilj) and then created an over-the-top private chapel attached to it for his tomb. Finally, he marked the spot with a restored Egyptian obelisk. Somehow, at Piazza Novaona, the little girl with the courage to refuse is lost, amid the storm of Baroque sculpture where she is immortalized.