Rome Diaries - Week 51

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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April 5, 2008

Via Giulia is 500 years old this year and celebrations abound. In a conversation with one independent scholar, I am told that the street was named after Giulia “Bella” Farnese, mistress of Rodrigo Borgia (later Pope Alexander VI); her ancestral palazzo still sits with its back to Via Giulia. But it is unlikely that the street was named for the mistress of Rodrigo Borgia, who was the most-feared enemy of the one who built the street. Self-aggrandizement is the more likely reason. When Giuliano della Rovere ascended the papal throne as warrior-pope Julius II, he wanted, in all humility, to be considered another Julius Caesar. Sometimes his imperial will was needlessly exercised as when he insisted that even cardinals and the Sistine Chapel choir attend battlefield events, but he gained lasting fame for his faultless taste in art, hiring Raphael to decorate his apartments, Michelangelo to fresco the Sistine Chapel, and Bramante to build the new St. Peter’s. (Julius’s tomb was another story, by the time it was completed by Michelangelo decades after the pope’s death, it had been whittled down to a single major statue, Moses, and was relegated to San Pietro in Vincoli and not the Vatican’s magnificent new St. Peter’s.) As a military man, Julius was concerned about the movement of people. In creating the straight streets of Via Giulia and, on the opposite bank of the Tiber, Via della Lungaria, he facilitated traffic and commerce, linking Rome’s river port of Ripa Grandeto markets within the congested center of medieval Rome. The streets were also a boon to pilgrims making their way to the tomb of St. Peter.


According to Vasari’s Life of Bramante:


"The pope was determined to place in Strada Giulia, which was under Bramante's direction, all the offices and administrative seats of power of Rome in one place, for the convenience of those who had business to do there, having been until then constantly much inconvenienced."


Both Bramante and Michelangelo were to have built structures on Via Giulia, but Bramante’s rusticated travertine blocks for a ground floor of a massive administration building now add mystery to the lobby of the trendy, five-star St. George Hotel and Michelangelo’s bridge, which was to have linked the Palazzo Farnese to Villa Farnesina (built on the opposite bank of the Tiber in 1505 by papal banker Agostino Chigi), is just a romantic, wisteria-clad arch at one end of the street. Appropriately, Via Gulia connects to Ponte Sisto, built by Julius’s uncle, Pope Sixtus IV, a quiet tribute to the man who swept Julius out of genteel poverty and into myriad benefices and prestige from titles it was the pope’s right to bestow. The 500th anniversary celebration today turns out to be a series of long lines (over five hours to get into the Palazzo Farnese). Curious Romans want to see what the non-profit Fondo per L’Ambiente Italiano (FAI) has done to restore the interiors of buildings along the street. If you are an FAI member, you get to stand on a much shorter line. To me it smacks of the kind of preferential treatment that was rampant during the time of Julius II. I decide to walk by the lines and experience just the street itself.


April 10, 2008

At a wedding reception in an elegant hotel, the grandfather of the bride walks over to me during dessert and sits down. I knew he fled El Salvador in the early 1980’s but he wanted to tell me more about his country. “And you know,” he began, “I was Archbishop Romero’s personal physician. I had an obligation to tell him to stop giving those speeches favoring the Communists. And they were the ones who shot him; they wanted him as a martyr. When he was dying, a nurse told me he was in the emergency room. I examined the small bullet hole and then bent down and whispered into his ear, ‘I told you this would happen.’”


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