Rome Diaries - Week 16

Updated: Nov 12

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.

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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


Once a year the convent, founded in 1433 by St. Frances of Rome, towards the end of her life, opens its doors to all who wish to celebrate her feast day. A basket of fresh herbs is available for sale in the first room of the convent. It recalls for visitors of the renowned nursing skills of Frances. I pass through room after room of frescos of her beloved Oblates of Mary happily working with the poorest of Rome. Frances, evidently, provided an irresistible example for pious, wealthy women to become involved in works of charity. Her lifelong attachment to mysticism and visions did not prevent her from fulfilling her duties as a wife and mother. In fact, she said that if someone should remind her of a household obligation during prayer, she would happily leave off what she was saying to God and do her duty. And she did this time and again in running of her busy household at the Ponziani family palazzo in Trestevere. Her husband respected his unusual wife and they spent a loving forty years together, while the rest of Rome went through the plague and dynastic battles in the streets that ultimately took the papacy to Avignon for seventy years and created an additional forty years of chaos. During much of the period, Frances and her pious friends were nursing the sick and feeding the poor of beleaguered Rome. The aristocratic housewife won the hearts of the people by such acts of charity; her oblates, still dressed as in the 15th century, continue her tradition down to this day. Quite close to the convent is the church of Santa Maria in Campitelli, which houses a tiny miraculous icon that, tradition holds, appeared suddenly on the table of Galla, another Roman woman who was helping the poor. When the icon was credited with saving Rome from the plague in the 17th century, this large church was built for it. Nowadays the 11th century icon can be spied swimming in the middle of a huge golden burst of cloud, a “glory” display, above the main altar. As a holy object, its assured presence is enough for us mortals, but postcards and a stairway for a better view are also available.

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