Rome Diaries - Week 32

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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August 17, 2007

Am still reading The Geometry of Love by anthropologist Margaret Visser. She writes about each chapel of St. Agnes Outside the Walls methodically and in succession. Coming upon a chapel filled with images of the Sacred Heart from the mid-18th century, her aesthetic sense is offended. The images, at one level, seem too emotional and sentimental to her. But she goes on:


"One of the ways you can tell, in a Catholic church, which saint or devotion to God is most popular is to count the candles and notice the quantities of flowers. These might be most numerous in front of some great work of art, but if they are, you may be sure that that is a mere coincidence. The work is only a representation of something entirely other than itself; it is that other reality in honor of which the candles are lit, no matter how lively – or how dreadful – the art. If that were not so, the work would be what Christians think of as an idol, like the emperor of Rome, to whom Christians, in the early days, were asked to burn incense…An idol is much more likely to be money, prestige, or even “good taste” itself than a depiction of Jesus or a saint."


August 18, 2007

I take the bus to Via Salaria and begin to walk what was the ancient Roman road built to transport salt from the Adriatic. On my right are the 1st century BC tombs of military tribune Lucilius Paetus and his sister. I turn onto Via Adda and face an 18-foot cement wall on my right side that extends four blocks. Beyond the wall, the tops of exotic trees can be seen and midway down the long, blank expanse floats the rooftop of the 17th century villa itself. Although still privately owned, parts of the villa are rented out to low-profile businesses. I turn the corner and the gardens bounded by just a high iron fence come into view. The original entrance, around a third corner, is below street level. I take the stairs down to peer into the villa’s courtyard and a guard dog begins to bark. As usual, Rome’s best places are hard to reach.


The villa was built for Cardinal Alessandro Albani in 1760. He was a diplomat and passionate collector and purveyor of antiquities. The house and grounds were to be the stage for his collection from Hadrian’s Villa and other sites. In “The Architecture of Modern Italy” Terry Kirk describes the times:


"[Cardinal] Albani trafficked in antiquities, often collaborating with Baron Stosch until the latter was expelled from Rome on charges of espionage. Albani’s interest in antiquities is obvious on the financial level as it is on the aesthetic level. indeed, he delighted in the works…In 1747, a new villa was planned for his second collection at a suburban site along the Via Salaria…This is a narrow building, much like the Palazzo Nuovo at the Capitoline that houses Albani’s first collection. Low wings extend left and right and finish in pavilions whose small temple facades are entirely constructed of ancient elements. Caryatids, herms, statues, reliefs, decorative masks, columns, basins, and colored marbles fill every available space in profusion…The Villa Albani was admired for its exceptional fusion of the ancient and the modern, right down to the nature of statues’ restoration…Without genuine ruins on the property nor a proper view to any, Albani’s team concocted a sham ruin on the ground. The artifice, the first of its kind in an Italian villa, was praised precisely for its English – and hence cosmopolitan – inspiration. Its curious disintegrated composition suggests the influence, if not the direct intervention of Piranesi. The engraver featured thirty-four pieces from Albani’s collection among his publications…The Villa Albani was a sumptuous showroom of antiquities, staffed by professional publicists who hyped the objects and raised their value considerably…The necessity of government intervention against the wholesale spoliation of Rome’s cultural heritage led Clement XIV to institute a veritable public trust at the Vatican in 1770. The Museum Clementinum…is a direct response to the cultural dispersal triggered by the pressures of the Grand tour and speculation on artistic goods."


Napoleon took possession of the property in 1797 when his army occupied Rome and made off with what he wished. The property was eventually bought by the Torlonias, an upstart banking. They had taken advantage of Napoleon’s invasion of Italy to become bankers to the Holy See, acquiring a succession of noble titles from the pope. Villa Albani became known as Villa Torlonia, a name confusingly shared with their two other estates in Rome. I will have to save further exploration here for another time and by an easier entrance.


Another bus takes me to Porta Maggiore, a roller coaster-sized tangle of gates, Roman roads and aqueducts just behind the main train station. Two aqueducts, the Aqua Claudia and the Anio Novus come together here and in 52 AD Emperor Claudius covered two of the arches in marble, celebrating the arrival of the waters. Two ancient roads ran through the gate to points south, the chariot-scarred stones are still there to see. In 271, the Aurelian Walls became part of the mix. There is confusion here: triumphal arch, defensive walls, ancient roads and, incongruously, the 33-foot tall tomb of the freedman baker Marcus Vergilius Eurysaces. Nine circular forms commemorate how he used to measure wheat. Snaking through these ruins is a very efficient transporation hub; the number 3 bus appears and I head home.



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