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Rome Diaries - Week 37

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 13, 2007

The Roman name for Tivoli is tibur, which derives from “tiba,” high place. The city sits on a jagged rift in the underlying limestone. The town has had a history of disastrous floods; I can hear its famous mineral springs surging in caverns just below the streets. The Gothic quarter can be a confusing jumble but it holds treasures, a frescoed church, block of carved marble reused to fortify a the tower of a medieval house. Rome arrived here in the 3rd century BC and in short order built a dramatic temple compound on a height, which now overlooks a lush ravine. By 286 BC, the Romans had finished Via Tiburtina from Rome to Tibur and the town became the ultimate getaway destination for upper class Romans. The temple dedicated to Vesta and Tibernus (the city’s mythical founder), encircled by Corinthian columns, stands in elegant contrast to its neighbor, the earlier Temple of the Sybil, a sturdy rectangle. Together they form a most beautiful ruin and the surrounding restaurants have extended their outdoor dining areas to take full advantage. It’s hard to believe the romantic valley of waterfalls and cascades below the temples is, in part, artificial. Once the river Aniene ran through the town and residents put up with routine destruction in and around the “Valley of Hell.” A letter (written in 105) from the Roman politician C. Plinius Secundus reads:

"Can the weather be as bad and stormy where you are? Here we have nothing but gales and repeated floods….Aniene, most delightful of rivers...has torn up and carried away most of the woods which shade its course. Where the banks rise high, they have been undermined, so that its channel is blocked in several places with the resultant landslides; and in its efforts to regain its lost course it has wrecked buildings and for ced out its way over the debris... Many people have been maimed, crushed, and buried in such accidents... "(Epistulae 8. 17)

Rome did need the drinking water, but officials also thought Aqua Marcia, the aqueduct built in 144, would help solve the flooding problems. It did not. In 1550 Cardinal Ippolito d'Este II, as a consolation for losing a papal election, was made governor of Tivoli and began work on his villa and its intricate fountains, hoping to redirect the forceful river, first for awe-inspiring sprays of water (which he got) and second, to alleviate flooding (to no avail). Like risk-averse Californians with dramatic ocean views, Tivoli’s villa owners postponed action until the ultimate catastrophe of November 16th, 1826. Pope Gregory XVI cleaned up the mess and took the advice of master engineer Clemente Folchi to channel the river Aniene, into a 1000-foot tunnel under Mount Catillo and expel it, as a spectacular artificial waterfall, back into its original riverbed south of the city. Not only was the project a success, but it created a whole new dripping world of mossy grottoes and high, miniature waterfalls from the stream of water that still trickled through the length of the ravine. By 1834, Gregory had his own villa on the site and made plans to embellish the tamed valley with lookouts, paths and pavilions. Probably the fastest way to get to Tivoli from Rome today is the bus, but the slower train, which winds around hill towns and makes an entrance into Tivoli that gives a panoramic view of the town with the great, channeled waterfall, is so much better. Not surprisingly, the first thing I notice about the town is the pulsating sound of its underground waters. The buildings around the old course of the river are still forlorn and neglected, but Villa Gregoriana Park, which had served as the unofficial town dump since 1870, has been restored. Villa d’Este, which incorporates a Benedictine monastery and an entire medieval neighborhood, is just off the main square behind high walls. Its proper entrance is now only for employees. This gate offers a view of the Fountain of the Dragons, after a monumental series of ascending terraces. Twice during my afternoon in Tivoli, people stop to show me around their town. One woman wants to make sure I do not miss the 1st century weights and measures office that sits to one side of a temple used for emperor worship. While I am in the cathedral, a teenager, wearing an official badge, comes up to me and solemnly points out the body of the St. Severinus, entombed behind the glass façade of the main altar. After losing my way in the Gothic quarter, I find an open 11th century church. Discreetly, I open my knapsack and have lunch in the empty church with just a wall of frescos looking on. Later, I take in the two beauty spots at scenic Villa Gregoriana: the Grotto of Neptune and the Cave of the Mermaids. During Napoleon’s annexation of the Papal States (1808-1814), troops excavated a tunnel through solid rock to the Grotto of Neptune where a turbulent brook is pounds down to the sea god’s grotto. Before this safety measure, adventurers were lowered down by basket from the top of the valley to glimpse the sight. The Cave of the Mermaids lies at the very bottom of the valley, filled with spray and bubbling cataracts. After all this water, I make my way to the train station on the other side of town and realize I have misread the schedule: I sit and gaze at a parched olive grove surrounded by sheer cliffs of red rock for two hours. There are worse places to wait for sunset.

September 21, 2007

San Marcello al Corso was built near stables for the imperial mail, the place where Emperor Maxentius ordered Pope Marcellus to work and where the pope later died as a prisoner. The original church (now below street level) was one of the first to have its own baptistry since, in Constantine’s time, all baptisms in Rome were performed at the baptistry of the cathedral (St. John Lateran). In 1519, a fire destroyed the exterior of San Marcello al Corso but the crucifix of the main altar and a medieval fresco of the Madonna and Child were saved. In the midst of rebuilding, came the Sack of Rome (1527) and any funds were wisely handed over to the “visiting” Germans as protection money; in 1530 flooding from the Tiber caused more damage. It is no wonder that the salvaged crucifix is only brought out for processions during the Holy Year to bring protection and success. The church was finally completed in 1592; a late Baroque façade arrived a century later

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