Rome Diaries - Week 34

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.

----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- August 24, 2007

Subiaco is just 38 miles from Rome. In 494, Benedict of Nursia, barely a teenager, decided to retire from the world here. As some others had done before him, he became a hermit in a cave-filled region high above the Aniene River. The Ponte Mammolo metro stop, named after the ancient bridge across the same river, has a Subiaco-bound COTRAL bus. Always there is a “trick” to validating your ticket. This time the slot is too small for the ticket and everyone must fold it to get the date stamped. The one-hour trip takes us to the regional park of Monti Simbruini, a world away from Rome. At first I think Rocca Abbaziale, dramtically perched on a rock in the middle of Subiaco, is “the” abbey, but Sacro Speco, the “holy grotto” of Benedict’s hermit’s existence, is just beyond a bend in the river and high above the town. Rocca Abbaziale was built about 500 years after Benedict’s hermitage and served as a monastery and a fort, protecting the cardinal-abbot’s extensive land holdings. Thanks to the tourist information counter, I have a map and walk out of town using the main road, hoping the promised ascending set of stairs will appear to make a pleasanter journey. Finding the steps, I am soon at the round, stone tomb of St. Mauro, the abbot of Sacro Speco who followed Benedict. His tomb, appropriately, overlooks the river Aniene as Mauro saved his brother from drowning at that spot and, yes, walked on water to do it. Just beyond to tomb lies the ruins of Nero’s villa. Most of the antique marble and stone were taken up Mt. Talèo to be used in the Sacro Speca and St. Scholastica monasteries.


The St. Scholastica complex occupies a large field halfway up. Having been heavily bombed during World War II, it has been completely rebuilt. Both monasteries were made properties of the Italian State in 1873; due to the agreements in the Lateran Treaty, they were considered part of “Italian cultural heritage.” At various times, Benedictine monks have been invited by the State of live in the buildings and currently some do, but this does not quite produce a feeling of their “ownership.” A monk might greet you at the door, but a State guide must tour you through the three historic cloisters and shockingly redone neo-classical church (1769) of St. Scholastica. A final flight of stairs through the woods brings me to St. Benedict’s monastery. Here the fervor of the monks can be seen in rooms of frescos from the 8th to 14th centuries, including a full-length portrait made of Francis of Assisi during his lifetime. But the area allowed to tourists is small and I pity the visiting German Benedictine seminarians who dutifully try to pray and meditate amid a constant stream of sightseers. Before I leave, I follow the path that winds through the lower church, beneath the cave Benedict occupied as a hermit. Just out the door is a hanging pulpit, the very spot the saint used to preach to the shepherds below. It is a wonderful place to evoke his memory, but no one else took notice of the sign describing it.


By 12:30 PM, we are all ushered out, banished to the courtyard gift shop while the monks and their minders enjoy the usual three-hour midday respite and repast. I’m sure they couldn’t wait for some peace and quiet.Benedict distinctively linked himself with the pope and the Western church in founding monasteries; his Rule, a masterpiece of cogency and wisdom, formed the basis of Western monasticsm. “Peace,” however, would not be a term applicable to the twelve monasteries Benedict himself founded, beginning in 497. Nearby St. Scholastica Abbey (520) is the only one still remaining. It is now a large complex named after Benedict’s twin sister. Squabbles among the monks finally drove him completely away, to Monte Cassino, where he started fresh. In 1364 the pope replaced “corrupt” monks at St. Scholastica with German Benedictines. This would add prestige to the abbey in the next century when the printers Sweinheim and Pannartz found a home there and printed the first “movable type” books in Italy (1465). Soon cardinal-abbots were created by the pope to maintain order and discipline and manage the increasing wealth of the complex. At certain angles St. Scholastica monastery is visible from the town, but Sacro Speco stays hidden, precariously set on a rock ledge about a mile and a half up the mountain path. I return to town by the same stairs, eventually passing the necessary eyesore of an electrical power plant just at the edge of Subiaco. The street shrine of a downtown building has blue and white streamers radiating from it – just as it always has -- the town celebrates all Marian feasts with gusto, yesterday was the Queenship of Mary. The nearby Franciscan church has acquired some exceptional artwork over the years so I cross a medieval bridge (built to commemorate the victory of Subiaco’s abbot-cardinal over the troops of Tivoli’s bishop) and take another flight of stairs to the St. Francis Church and convent. It lies on property given by the Benedictines to St. Francis himself. As if waiting just for me, a sister is at the door of the cloister and invites me in to see the church.


I enter the quiet space, devoid of guidebook-toting visitors. It is beautiful just to be in the quiet. After a while, I make my rounds to view the art of Pinturicchio, Sodoma and other Renaissance masters -- finally, I discover my own “holy cave” in Subiaco.


August 28, 2007

I was saving Ostia Antica for a cooler time. Today is the Feast of St. Augustine who has a vivid association with the place. In his Confessions he relates the death of his mother Monica (387) as they wait for a war-time blockade to be lifted from old Ostia so they can sail back to their home in Tagaste, Numidia (now Algeria):


"As the day now approached on which she was to depart this life...she and I stood alone, leaning in a certain window, from which the garden of the house we occupied at Ostia could be seen; at which place, removed from the crowd, we were resting ourselves for the voyage, after the fatigues of a long journey…However, scarcely five days after…she was prostrated by fever…We hurried up to her; but she soon regained her senses, and gazing on me and my brother as we stood by her, she said to us inquiringly, "Where was I?" Then looking intently at us stupefied with grief, "Here," saith she, "shall you bury your mother…Lay this body anywhere, let not the care for it trouble you at all. This only I ask, that you will remember me at the Lord's altar, wherever you be…"Nothing is far to God; nor need I fear lest He should be ignorant at the end of the world of the place whence He is to raise me up." On the ninth day, then, of her sickness, the fifty-sixth year of her age, and the thirty-third of mine, was that religious and devout soul set free from the body." (Book IX, Chapter 12, v. 23, 27-28)


I arrive around 10 AM and find the place beautifully quiet. The entrance puts me immediately on the old Roman pavement of Via Ostiense which the Romans built to connect their capital with the salt flats near what would become Ostia Antica. A stone fort, built by the Romans in the 4th century BC, has been incorporated into the largely 2nd century AD remains of the city. As was the custom, the dead are buried outside the walls, along the road leading to the city proper; I am surrounded by showy tombs and, as everywhere here, am free to roam and discover the hidden spots on my own (looting and vandalism are constant threats). Vast mosaic floors, including exquisite opus sectile patterns in colored marbles, are all here to be walked upon, as if the occupants had just left. The city remained the key supply point for Rome’s one million citizens until the 4th century when the nearby imperial harbor of Portus, larger, deeper and better protected, took precedence. From the stacks of semi-finished marble columns and carefully laid-out grain storage jars, it is evident that Ostia was crammed with warehouses and populated by successful merchants and seafarers. Streets of once-elegant houses and guildhalls are easy to find. The theater, which accommodated over 3,000 patrons, is surrounded by a forum of “corporations,” guild shops that dealt with everything from exotic animals for the arena to direct shipments to Egypt. In the forum’s center, stand the remains of a large temple to Ceres, goddess of business prosperity. Foreign religious buildings abound -- Judiasm, Christianity, the cult of Mithras and the cult of Cybele as well as homegrown Emperor worship – all are represented. But the most pervasive building type -- great and public or elite and private -- is the Roman bath. It almost seems too many for a city of 75,000. The last inhabitants abandoned Ostia Antica in the 6th century when the aqueduct ceased to function. By the 12th century, the marble of Ostia was being burnt in lime kilns, while the better pieces were shipped off to decorate cathedrals at Pisa, Florence, Amalfi and Orvieto. In 1483 Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere (later Pope Julius II) began rebuilding Gregoriopolis, a 9th century fortified village that had been built next to Ostia Antica. The cardinal constructed a handsome fortress made from Ostian bricks but the great flood of 1557 changed the course of the Tiber and rendered the structure useless for defense. Between the 15th and 18th centuries various expeditions searched randomly among the ruins for ancient statues. Artifacts from Ostia, discovered at this time, can be seen in major museums around the world.


The practice of selling licenses to foreign expeditions was banned in the 19th century when things took a more proprietary and scientific turn. Between 1801 and 1804, Pius VII, under French domination, engaged a group of 200 galley slaves to uncover Ostian antiquities, bolstering his political clout with antique art. Later, the excavations at Ostia Antica were continued by the Fascists to satisfy their fascination with imperial Rome: In preparation for the ill-fated Universal Exhibition in Rome (planned for 1942), researchers were directed to dig down and restore just the level from emperor Hadrian’s time, everything else was obliterated. Unfortunately, this effort was brutally thorough; authorities plotted out the entire site and then awarded the various sections to different excavators so the area could be all dug up at once. The adjacent imperial harbor of Portus escaped most excavation because much of the property has been owned for centuries by the Torlonia family. Now its 445 acres are largely covered by Fiumicino Airport. Court battles between the Torlonias and the Italian government continue to this day, blocking archaeological exploration of the 2nd century artificial harbor, built here by Trajan. After seven hours of delightful wandering, I head back to Rome, hoping to gain a glimpse of the remains of St. Monica who was buried in Ostia, but in 1430 was taken, to Rome’s Sant'Agostino, the church named after her son. By the time I arrive, the celebrations for her feast, yesterday, and his, today, have ended and the doors are closed. I will return on Saturday.



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