Rome Diaries - Week 41

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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December 4, 2007

After days of rain, a crisp sunny day. I decide to revisit one of my favorite churches San Lorenzo fuori delle Mura. As with other 4th century basilicas, San Lorenzo was built around a catacomb. But unlike the others, a modern, aboveground cemetery (begun in 1811) surrounds the church on three sides. On July19, 1943, the allies bombed the area, destroying most of the 12th century frescoes. Some of the columns are cracked and pockmarked and though the beautiful cosmatesque floor still shines, it shows its 900 years of wear, but all of this imperfection simply adds to the grandeur of the space. I make the rounds of all my favorite places: Giacomo Manzú’s tomb of Alcide de Gasperi who founded a political party based on Christian principles and went on to lay the groundwork for the European Union – it’s simple trellis of fruit and vines recalling the classical ideals of the Roman Republic; the 12th century frescos on the life of St. Stephen and St. Lawrence, the two deacons and martyrs whose remains lie beneath the main altar; the fluted marble columns from the 4th century basilica that dramatically set off the sanctuary; the slab, mounted to a wall, on which the body of Lawrence was place after his death; the tomb of Blessed Pius IX, whose 32-year, tumultuous papacy ushered the Church into to the modern world; the medieval cloister, recently replanted with pomegranate and orange trees, each bordered by a clipped, box hedge.


After an hour of quiet wandering, I am ready for a tour of Campo Verano, the adjacent municipal cemetery planned by Napoleon. When the light is right, the buildings (mausoleums) can seem like the cityscape of the New Jerusalem or, with a little more imagination, Portofino! Mature specimens of pine, magnolia and cypress trees abound; small trees are allowed to grow from the cracks in some of the buildings, marking the passage of time. The wealthy and the famous are here but hours can be spent peering at the well-preserved photos of the ordinary deceased: the boy by his hobbyhorse; the tan, fit couple in their front yard; the old woman who smiles not. I plan to return to Campo Verano, the most relaxing spot I’ve found in Rome, so far.


Hopping a tram, I set out for an exhibit of Swiss handicrafts in the “shabby chic” district that runs off Via di Porta Labicanam and nearly miss the discreet sign for the show, which is in an upscale bakery. Ten Swiss artists have been asked to make beautiful, sentimental things that also have a bit of irony. There are spotted baby shoes that the curator assures me would warm any Swiss heart, embroidery work featuring women doing embroidery and coasters featuring “classic” travel paintings of the 19th century. I buy none of it, not even the almond paste-filled gingerbread hearts made by the bakery especially for the show. Each comes in its own handmade box. In the early evening I visit the antiquarian shop of Cesare Lampronti on Via del Babuino. Here a woman, arms folded, follows me through labyrinthine showrooms, probably impatient to go home.


December 9, 2007

Thanks to knowing the tenor who is singing Benjamin Britten’s cantata Saint Nicolas, I receive complimentary tickets. The venue is St. Paul’s Within-the-Walls, built in 1873 as the first non-Roman Catholic church in the historic center of Rome – a gift from American Episcopalian and financier J. P. Morgan. The 1600’s saw the development of the cantata, the oratorio and the opera, each one longer and more complex than the next. Tradition has it that St. Philip Neri and the community he founded, the Oratorians, began introducing what would be elements of this form as early as 1550. In 1600, the Oratorian church in Rome, Chiesa Nuova, put on Emilio de Cavalieri’s Rappresentatione di Anima, et di Corpo, a “sacred opera” that would later be called an “oratorio,” referencing the religious community who first produced it. Philip Neri was convinced that choral and congregational participation during an oratorio would restore fervor to the Catholic Church as a response to the criticism of the Protestant reformers. Soon Protestants themselves adopted the oratorio form. Britten was a conscientious objector during World War II and had been vilified in the British press. Saint Nicholas, a commission for the centennial celebration of Lancing College in Sussex, was written in 1948 during his effort to make a popular comeback. It was his first attempt at using non-professional choirs in his work. This turned out to be a wise decision since school choirs everywhere, as tonight at St. Paul’s, take advantage of the opportunity to do a little fund-raising just before Christmas. St. Nick would approve.


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