Rome Diaries - Week 16

Updated: Nov 12, 2020

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.


March 7th, 2007

Medieval Rome gets short shrift on most tours. It marks the decline of the city as well as its plundering. But that doesn’t mean the period is without interest. The National Museum of the High Middle Ages offers such tantalizing objects as a lead water pipe for a barbarian-built aqueduct, locally made jewelry that attempts to copy the Byzantine style and, after fifty years of piecing it together, a dazzling hall from a merchant’s house in Ostia. The walls and floor are of rare inlaid, colored marbles (opus sectile). Not only are the patterns intricate, but inlaid marble pictures adorn the walls – lions, tigers and the face of an unknown philosopher who might be Jesus, since the house dates from 400 A.D., just after Constantine’s edict legalizing Christianity. The hall is so fresh and perfect, you expect to see, in the middle of the room, a table set out for dinner.

This museum and a handful of others are housed in the section of Rome now called, “EUR.”Esposizione Universale Roma was supposed to have opened in 1942, but World War II intervened. A huge bronze named “Spirit of Fascism” was modified by adding wrestling gloves and baptizing it “Spirit of Sports.” EUR has a somber, alien, feeling. It is no accident that film directors, like Antonioni, have used it to evoke feelings of isolation.

I read a comment on a sign about the Jesuit priest Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680) whose museum formed the beginning collections of three modern Roman ones, including the National Museum of Prehistory and Ethnography located here. The original assemblage was a “must see” for any 17th century scholar or intellectual when in Rome; it was dispersed when Collegio Romano was secularized in 1870. Father Kircher, a professor of Mathematics and Oriental Language at Collegio Romano, was celebrated in his day as another da Vinci; he has recently been re-discovered as a thinker who was ahead of his time. Kircher’s energetic approach to scientific exploration applied Jesuitical zeal to the new discipline. As a volcanologist, he lowered himself into the crater of Mount Vesuvius, as an Egyptologist he correctly assumed that studying the Coptic language would help break the code of Egyptian hieroglyphics, as an optical scientist he invented a glass slide projector that ran by candlepower. Having arrived in Rome just a few years after Galileo was silenced by the Church, he wisely followed Danish astronomer Tycho Brache in asserting that, while other planets revolved around the sun, the earth itself was stationary. Truth be told, often his investigations could not taken far enough to bear fruit, but they are tantalizing examples of what a creative and analytical mind can do: connect magnetism with gravity, link the plague to “tiny animals,” and suggest that lava indicates the earth has a liquid core. Kircher’s fascinating museum was really an extension of himself and went into decline even before his death. Now, his forty erudite books and a few antiquities, formerly in his collection, are the only means we have of glimpsing what the marvelous rooms of Kircher’s Museum must have been like.

March 9th, 2007