Rome Diaries - Week 21

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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May 5, 2007

I spot a sign in front of an ancient palace and strangely calls it a pawnshop. Monte di Pietà was originally a bishop’s palace but it was purchased in 1603 to be the elegant new offices for a charity begun in 1539 by the first Counter-Reformation pope, Paul III (Farnese), and sponsored by nobles of the city. The object was to allow the poor to borrow money by pawning something of value at a fixed and relatively small amount of interest. Incredibly, it is still in operation and, according to the sign in front, “…the funds are currently being administered by Banca di Roma.” That means “the pawnshop” has been going for 470 years! A little research brings to light all sorts of connections between Banca di Roma and the Vatican. As early as 1603 a bank was set up for the Papal States but when those states were dissolved in 1870, the then bank of the Papal States, Banca Romano, collapsed. Ernesto Pacelli (cousin of the future Pope Pius XII) founded Banca di Roma in 1880 and soon after secured compensation for the collapse of the Vatican’s Banca Romano from the Italian government. This began his close banking relationship with the Vatican, especially useful because the legal status of the Vatican would not be settled until the Lateran Treaty of 1929 and a good number of Vatican securities were held in Ernesto Pacelli’s name. By the beginning of World War I, the Vatican owned 25% of Banca di Roma. To help prevent this bank’s collapse, a few years later, the Vatican handed over its shares, but, to this day, keeps many of its assets at the bank. To move along negations on settling the legal status of the Vatican, Mussolini agreed to rescue Banca di Roma from collapse with monies from the Italian state. The Lateran Treaty also provided the Vatican with about $80 million to invest through its own bank. These actions allied the Vatican with the Mussolini government. In 1933, as secretary of state, Eugenio Pacelli (the future Pius XII) signed the document that made the Vatican the first state to recognize Hitler’s Germany, a coup for Mussolini. Fifty years later, the invested patrimony from the Lateran Treaty would be part of the Banco Ambrosiano scandal…but that’s another story.


May 6, 2007

Rome is the birthplace of the one-way street. Maybe this is why motorists feel they can risk a quick shortcut down the wrong way of a one-way street, as I see one doing today. It all started in 1300. Pope Boniface VIII was searching for ideas to attract people to the struggling and depopulated city. He hit upon a notion prevalent in his century, the biblical promise in Leviticus (25:10) of “remission” after seven cycles of seven years. Boniface’s Year of Jubilee for the remission of sins brought in two million pilgrims and necessitated making Via del Corso a one-way street into the heart of Rome. (The street was arrow-straight; in ancient times it was the consular road, Via Flaminia.) Of course, Boniface had reasons other than religious tourism for his Holy Year, he wanted to show the supremacy of the papacy over all secular rulers. In this, he overreached himself and was taken prisoner by Philip IV of France, beginning the century of disruption known as the Avignon Papacy and “Western schism.” Nevertheless, the Main Street of Rome was established and Via del Corso became the processional road for all visitors from the North. Later centuries would expand the piazza in front of “Popular Gate” (Porta del Popolo) and create a grand urban design of a “trident” of three thoroughfares with two nearly identical churches between them. Pope Sixtus V would grace the piazza with one of the newly discovered Egyptian obelisks; these markers still indicate the key religious sights of the city today.

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