Rome Diaries - Week 35

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.

----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- September 1, 2007

I find the chapel of St. Monica just to the left of Sant'Agostino’s high altar. Her remains have been moved to an ornate silver coffin just beneath the chapel’s altar, on the left is her marble sarcophagus, a large side panel is from the originial burial. The oil painting above includes the Latin phrase “Ubi tu ibi et ille,” a reference to Monica’s dream about her son recorded in Augustine’s Confessions:


(Book III, Chapter 11)…she saw herself standing on a certain wooden rule, (8) and a bright youth advancing towards her, joyous and smiling upon her, whilst she was grieving and bowed down with sorrow. But he having inquired of her the cause of her sorrow and daily weeping…and she answering that it was my perdition she was lamenting, he bade her rest contented, and told her to behold and see "that where she was, there was I also." And when she looked, she saw me standing near her on the same rule. (20)…and I tried to put this construction on it, "That she rather should not despair of being some day where I was," she immediately, without hesitation, replied, "No; for it was not told me that where he is, there shalt thou be," but "where thou art, there shall he be.” I confess to Thee, O Lord…Thy answer through my watchful mother …even then moved me more than the dream itself…”


Another painting has, in large letters, “Monica Ora Pro Nobis.” In Monica’s case, an especially appropriate sentiment since her entire adult life was spent in prayer for the conversion of her husband and son. Though she lived in ancient times, she is patron of quite relevant issues: abuse victims, alcoholics, difficult marriages and, of course, “disappointing children.” It’s so good to have her in a church named after her son.


September 7, 2007

Tonight, between the hours of 9:00 PM and 2:00 AM, many unusual venues will be open to celebrate the night before Notte Bianca, a communal party that attracted a million people last year. I plan my evening visits strategically. First comes the Trajan Markets (early 2nd century) which I know will be the most popular as it has been closed for two and a half years. The complex was built with the spoils from Trajan’s Dacian campaign (battle scenes from Dacia, modern Romania, spiral up the 125-foot column at the north end of the site) and is the largest and last of the Imperial Forums. Lack of space was not an issue, architect and Dacian war veteran Apollodorus of Damascus excavated the sides of the Quirinal and Capitoline hills to form a semi-circular arcade that concealed massive retaining walls. The Markets are entered at mid-level, the hub of Trajan’s administrative headquarters. The vaulted rooms of this grand area contain magnificent broken pieces from every Roman forum: cupids from Caesar’s, a bronze foot and a giant’s marble hand from Augustus’s and an armored figure from Trajan’s among them. Evocative abstract sculptures encourage visitors to use their imaginations to recreate what life might have been like along the food and drink lined shopping street, Via Biberatica (“biber” means drink); below, shops encircle a vast piazza. Adjacent to the complex, the medieval tower of the Milizie family soars 165 feet from its spot on the slopes of the Quirinal hill. Begun as a fortification by Pope Innocent III in the 13th century, it has been fancifully described as the place where Nero fiddled as Rome burned (in truth, he was in Antium). The landmark survived as part of a convent for centuries and was spared during Mussolini’s extensive urban planning efforts.


Next stop, is the state archives, located in the former “La Sapienza” University palazzo. Challenged to squeeze a university chapel in between the two wings of the palazzo, Borromini created a concave building that seamlessly connects to the wings. His elegant interior, a play of contrasting geometric forms, is an early masterpiece. The library here, created by the Chigi pope Alexander VII, is a testimony to that family’s use of art as an extension of power. Its vaulted hall holds 35,000 volumes on ornately carved shelves while the triumphant figure of Pope Alexander presides over all. I leave the tour early to make it to another rarely opened library, Biblioteca Vallicelliana. The first books in its collection were owned by St. Philip Neri, founder of the Oratorians (1565), who began the library to train their seminarians. Soon cardinals, bishops and scholars began bequeathing their prize collections to Vallicelliana in an effort to respond to the Protestant challenge by improved and more widespread education. Boromini is responsible for the magnificent “monumental salon” of dark wood shelving, light pink glazed-tile floor and coffered, cream-colored ceiling.


The last stop of this whirlwind nighttime tour is the Temple of Hadrian. Behind the ancient façade, Roman artist Emiliano Cataldo created a wide-screen, 3D tour of the Appian Way, including some mysterious apparitions among the tombs. I feel I could easily “rest in peace” on any vacant bench at this point, but there are none, so I make my way home at 2:30 AM through the partying crowds.


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