Rome Diaries - Week 17

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 16th, 2007

This is the day Palazzo Massimo alle Colonna is open to the public. The building itself is famously curved on its front facade, following the ancient foundations of the Emperor Domitian’s Odeon, a theater for poetry competitions; “alle Colonna” refers to a column from the ruin that is still standing at the back entrance of the palazzo.

By 9 AM a good crowd, greeted by liveried servants, has formed in the courtyard. The family uses the whole palace, but the rooms we see are handsome reception rooms, some commemorating military battles. When I pause to look at a gilt bronze side table that is close to a private room filled with the Massimo family’s invited guests, a woman in a black dress tells me to “keep moving.” There is the flurry of clerical capes and sashes everywhere since the reason for this open house is to commemorate the brief return to life of a young family member after being prayed over by St. Philip Neri on this date in 1583. The three altars in the family chapel (the very room in which the miracle took place) are supplied with a constant stream of priests whispering Masses in Italian. We non-nobles get to watch the family attending the services in the crammed vestibule in front of the chapel.


March 22nd, 2007

Today I stroll the Appian Way. The Roman road was a military creation and Consuls were entrusted with their construction. The Appian Way, would, eventually stretch over three hundred miles to Brindisi, Rome’s port to the East. Begun in 312 B.C., it has been called the first modern road since it was engineered to be as straight as possible -- it did not follow the natural contours of the land as the more ancient Via Latina had. In parts, its very paving stones can still be seen, grooves from chariot traffic and all.


The founding legal document of Rome (“The Twelve Tables,” 450 B.C.) decreed that burials must be outside the city thereby making the Appian Way a de facto cemetery for the wealthy and powerful; their monuments and mausoleums still attract the attention of travelers. Some of the structures are so massive they were used as towers for medieval fortifications.

When the Christianity received legal recognition, they began buying property adjacent to the Way to bury their own dead (before they had simply used the existing pagan catacombs). These ancient remains were taken to the safety of Rome in the 8th and 9th centuries out of fear of desecration and robbery from the invading Lombards. From a detailed map of greater Rome, I notice that an archeological site on the ancient Via Latina is near a Metro stop, so I decide to start my first foray from there. The train leaves me off in your typical urban sprawl, but wedged between a supermarket and a parking lot is a green field with evocative ruins. Frescoed walls lie just beneath the mausoleums, but special permission is required for entry. Nearby is the Caffarella Valley, a mixture of open space and 19th century farmhouses. On a knoll are descendants of the trees that made and ancient “sacred grove,” a nearby spring is said to be the home of Egeria, a water spirit who was the confidant of Numa Pompilius the second king of Rome. (The little-known goddess’s water is now a major brand here.) When you are in the valley itself, suburban Rome is hidden.


A short way down looms the enormous marble-faced tomb of Cecilia Metella (50 B.C.). Further along lay three imperial villas, built hundreds of years apart and one on top of the other. The catacombs of St. Sebastian appear next. The term “catacombs” was coined here and means “near the hollow” or “near the quarries.” The place was not a secret. Early catacombs had both pagan and Christian burials. A beautiful open area extends north from St. Sebastian’s, the Via Ardeatina, one of the 29 consular roads emanating from Rome; it can be traversed as it passes over other catacombs. On my journey, a flock of sheep and their shepherd make their way across the road, just as they might have in Roman times. My journey ends at the “Quo Vadis” church, the spot from which you can have your last glimpse of the walls of Rome and where a fleeing St. Peter, tradition has it, was met by Jesus. Peter asked the vision where he was going (“Quo Vadis”) and Jesus said, “I am going to Rome to be crucified again.” As with St. Paul, this was enough of a shocker to “convert” the Peter and send him back to Rome for martyrdom. Footprints in marble here (the original is at St. Sebastian’s) commemorate the vision, but the relief is actually copies an ancient offering to the god Rediculum, patron for all those looking for a safe return, whose temple stood nearby.

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